Spending Money to Save Time

My wife’s extended family is of Norwegian heritage, and the entire family loves eating lefse at large family meals. The only problem is that preparing an extended family sized batch of lefse takes several hours, so they all chip $10 or so together and buy three or four pounds worth of the potato pastry from a local small businessperson who makes it from scratch.

Another friend of mine is of Eastern European descent and his family eats babka some family events, and the babka is made on a rotating basis (meaning one person makes all the babka for one family event). When it came to be her turn, she didn’t have the time to make the babka but she wanted it to be as good as the babka as her other family members made, so she ordered four loaves from Dean and DeLuca, setting her back $50.

Yet another friend of mine was making handmade wooden blocks in his woodshop for his son, sanding them down carefully and painting them. He ran out of time so he enlisted the help of several of his woodworking friends, paying them several dollars for each block they could make before Christmas arrived.

In each of these cases, the person was substituting their money for their time. Their busy lives prevented them from having the time to do something well inside their skill set, so they paid someone else to do it.

This brings to mind an argument from another friend of mine, who pays a housekeeper to come to his home for a couple hours a day. This is a local connection, paid in cash only – he pays the woman $10 an hour in cash to come to his home and do some basic cleaning – vacuuming, scrubbing toilets, etc. He argues that without this service, he wouldn’t be able to do many of the things he has the free time to enjoy, and to him it’s worth $10 an hour to get that extra time.

On a lot of levels, this approach makes sense to me. What value do you place on your time during your waking hours? One honest way to do this is to

calculate your hourly wage and see how much you actually do value an hour of your time, and then use that data to figure out how valuable your free time is to you.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that I make $12 an hour as my real wage for the time invested working on The Simple Dollar, and I worked on it two hours a day. If I hired someone to clean my home at $10 an hour during those two hours, I would only make $2 an hour, but I would have two hours of free time where I didn’t have to participate in the drudgery of house cleaning. Those two hours could be used to make the lefse or the babka, saving some significant money, or else spent enjoying my life.

Alternately, let’s say I had a great idea for a side business and the capital to get it rolling, but I didn’t have the time to get started. I could channel some of that capital into hiring someone to do menial personal tasks, then channel my own time into the side business, seeing if there’s enough meat there to get things to really take off.

This is much the same idea as the “virtual assistant” concept in The 4 Hour Workweek, or the precise reason why upper middle class and upper class families hire a maid or personal assistant to take care of menial tasks for a relatively low wage. They’ve discovered that their time is quite valuable and that an assistant like this creates more free time in their lives that they can spend with their families, doing things they deeply enjoy, or perhaps following their dreams as well.

For many people, this isn’t even a consideration. I know many people who make a real wage (their hourly wage after including benefits, extra hours spent devoted to the job by commuting and so on, and extra money spent commuting and on clothing and on taxes and so on) below minimum wage and thus this isn’t really an option, or perhaps they’ve reached a point in their life where their income from other sources covers their living expenses and they have all the free time in the world.

This concept really speaks to people like me whose most valuable resource is time. Time, more than anything, is what I wish I had more of. Is it appropriate to buy more time? It depends entirely on how you value it, but as time goes on and my writing career begins to bloom, it begins to look like a compelling option.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.