Updated on 01.26.10

How You Spend Your Time, How You Spend Your Money

Trent Hamm

Try this experiment.

For the next month, keep a time diary for yourself. Keep a pocket notebook and, throughout the day, take notes on how you’ve been spending your time. Don’t try to be “perfect” about how you spend your time – just be normal about it. You’re recording this information for your own purposes.

Once you have a month or so worth of data, come up with some sensible groups for how you spend your time. Hygiene might be one. Cooking might be another. You might have a handful of categories for your hobbies and interests, like watching television. Spending time with friends or family might be another such category, as might surfing the web.

Once you have these groups, add up all of the time you spent during that month doing something within that group. For example, during the month I did this, I found that I spent forty seven hours reading for personal pleasure and enrichment.

Once you have that, compare it to your actual spending throughout a given month. Are there any areas where you’re spending a lot of money but not spending much time?

Quite often, those areas where you’re spending a lot of money but not spending much time are the very areas that most need trimming.

For me, those areas have included technology items and sports equipment. I don’t play enough golf to really warrant the purchase of more golf clubs, and I often don’t use the gadgets I’ve bought nearly enough to warrant the purchase price.

The flip side of that coin is also interesting – the areas where you spend a lot of time without spending a lot of money.

In my own life, reading and cooking are two areas where I invest a lot of time but typically don’t spend significant money. I don’t spend a lot of money on reading materials, nor do I invest significant money into cooking supplies, either (aside from perhaps being a bit picky about ingredients for some meals) – in fact, I often cook things that wind up costing less than a prepackaged option.

Here’s the kicker, though. Quite often, areas of your life where you spend a lot of time without spending a lot of money are the areas that truly bring you the most enjoyment because you don’t require a constant influx of new things to be able to enjoy yourself.

I argue that those are the areas of your life that you should accentuate, while learning to let go of the areas that offer much less bang for the buck.

What does that mean for me? Instead of lusting for gadgets, I should instead focus on cooking great meals for my family. Instead of looking at golf clubs, I should devote more time to reading.

This carries through to the other expenses and choices in my life. When I look at the websites I read regularly, it doesn’t take much to de-subscribe from Gizmodo and subscribe to 101 Cookbooks. When I go shopping, I can skip by the Apple store and visit the local organic greengrocer. Instead of spending the weekend dropping a C-note at the golf course, I can just join a book club instead (and get my outdoors fix by going on a hike).

The end result? I slowly start focusing more on and spending more time on the things that are truly important to me that also happen to not cost all that much. Meanwhile, the costly things that I don’t really care about that much begin to slowly fade away.

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  1. oci23 says:

    that’s an excellent idea. i will start doing this tomorrow, hopefully.

  2. sarah says:

    What a cool idea!

  3. Brittany says:

    Excellent article! Nicely sums up a concept I was trying to explain to some spendthrifts friends the other day. Thanks, Trent!

  4. So, what happens if you spend those 47 hours watching TV instead of reading? It’s still inexpensive, but you have to wonder about the true value of that time.
    Just my $0.02 – Keep the change!

  5. triLcat says:

    You’re not accounting for what I refer to as “recreational window-shopping.” My husband and I regularly go to look at the latest in geek-tech. We never buy any of it, but we’ve ogled all the latest Apple offerings. We’ve discussed which games we’d play on our wii (we don’t have a television, much less a wii).

    We never buy the gizmos on gizmodo, but we enjoy reading about them. why would I give up the enjoyable read?!

  6. Jonathan says:

    Don’t unsubscribe from Gizmodo! What about gadget deals of the day?

  7. Tracy says:

    re commment #3: Isn’t it time to stop automatically trashing TV viewing vis-a-vis reading. The value of either depends on many things, not least the quality of the show/reading material. Both offer a lot of trash (by my standards) and some excellent entertainment/enlightenment. Let’s move on.

  8. Great idea Trent. I think that this kind of reasoning applies incredibly well to things related to entertainment. Think about the amount of money you will spend on an activity and divide it by the length of time that it will entertain you, and you will quickly see many activities that are wasteful.

  9. Barbara says:

    Brilliant idea!!!! Spending diary is crucial… time diary may be even more important. we can make more money, not more time.

  10. PMalik says:

    Though I agree with the idea that a person should evaluate his time spending habits and try to make them more efficient and align them with his goals. I think the conclusion drawn here that “the less money you spend on something and more time you spend on it is the best thing for you to do”. Take for ex, If I spend most of time, watching movies/tv, mostly downloaded from net (so free), it is still not the most productive thing for me to do. Maybe I will fare better spending some money doing a course.

  11. Alan says:

    Your article makes perfect sense.

    I noticed that the more I read Gizmodo/visit the Apple store, the more I spend on gadgets. That’s simply because the more time to expose yourself to being bombarded with “advertisements” the more likely you are to give in to the temptation to buy something!

    And in this materialistic world that we live in, how hard is it to swim against the tide of meaningless consumption?

  12. Nice article. Lately I’d been feeling like a lot of the posts are just the same few ideas rehashed, so it’s nice to see a new-to-me concept. I think this would be a worthwhile exercise, particularly to uncover areas where you’re, as you said, spending a lot of money but not a lot of time (e.g. buying a $50 video game and then only getting around to playing it for an hour or two each month).

  13. RobD says:

    Carrying the pocket notebook is a great habit to build for other reasons, too…if you could manage this project, you could manage others the same way. I’m notorious in my circles for the notebook, which has expense tracking, reading lists, want lists, grocery lists, and journal entires all jumbled together. Might amuse some historian of the 21st century some day. (-:

  14. Tyler WebCPA says:

    Your time is so much more precious than your money. While money is important, it can be won or lost and yet you will still always have another chance to earn some more. Not so with time, our lives are inherently finite and every minute spent is gone forever. Trent, I think that it is a fantastic idea to weigh your spending in terms of time, just don’t let the tail (money) wag the dog (your time).

  15. I had never seen it put in so many words, but its really true.

    If you’re trying to improve financially, why wouldn’t you spend more time on the things that cost less money?

    Its like going to the carnival with your children. Woud you rather them go on the roller coaster that costs $3 and last 30 seconds, or sit down for the puppet show that last 30 minutes and costs 50 cents?

  16. Serena says:

    What a great idea! I will put this into practice and see what comes of it. Thanks.

  17. kristine says:

    Very interesting idea! I like the idea of making the money/enjoyment relationship an inverse correlation, yet positive at the same time! In my head I already see it as a graph. Cool.

  18. Walden Pond says:

    Thanks, this turns conventional advice upside down! Usually we spend on X to “buy time.” You remind us that when we spend time, we don’t have to buy a lot of X.

  19. Tonya says:

    While I’ve never sat down and made a list of how I spend my time, I’ve certainly given it much thought. That is why I no longer scrapbook and I write instead. I had too much trouble ignoring all the shiny objects vying for my pocketbook. Instead of overloading my son with piles of scrapbooks I can leave him with piles of stories of his memories. I’ve finally learned that photos can be enjoyed in albums just as well as scrapbooks. Now I just have to finish dealing with the clutter left from my abandoned hobby.

  20. ETF says:

    I agree with #3 Tyler: It seems like you’ve skipped a step, namely “Look at where you spend the most time and see if that aligns with your values and goals.”

    I did something similar, and I realized I spent far too much time surfing the web instead of interacting with other people. I also spend too much time shopping (including window shopping) rather than trying out new and different things offered in my city.

    These are not necessarily money saving changes – but if you want to know whether the money you spend is being spent wisely, it is a valuable exercise.

  21. littlepitcher says:

    Sounds about like my reading time. I spent more than any $200/year on books, even on minimum wage, and would go without everything except food so I could purchase reading. I estimate the computer paid for itself in 2 years on book expenses saved, and the iPod Touch will payback in no more than nine months.

    I subscribe to ZNet and PC World’s newsletters. I can choose to read/not read the gadgets columns, while learning free procedures and softwares. Lifehacker-yes, Gizmodo-no.

    Currently trying to figure out how to pry myself away from political newsletters which do not pay for themselves and cost me loads of time. This one, though, may take a twelve-step program.

  22. Josh says:

    Hmm…I suppose this means I should invest in a decent bed?

  23. I love doing this. It’s incredible how much materialism has nothing to do with happiness.

    Buying needs and enjoying people. That’s the key.

  24. Paco says:

    Is red beans and rice a great meal for the family?

    A truly healthy complete meal for 4 for under 10 bucks, and the simple dollar would be on lifehacker in a second, probably on cookforgood as well. 25 – 50 meals, published in a heartbeat.

  25. Kathleen says:

    Ugh. I’m a lawyer. I keep track of what I do — in 6 minute increments — for about 10-14 hours per day. No more!!!

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