Balancing Spending and Time: How ‘Time Frugality’ Can Save You Lots of Cash

I have a number of hobbies that I deeply enjoy. I really enjoy playing board games and am the member of two different board game groups. I love to read. I love doing things with my children. I love tinkering with electronics, walking around my neighborhood, and countless other things. I also love just trying new things, like making a stained glass wall hanging at a workshop or building a robotic spider or making a table in a wood shop.

Those things all mean something to me, particularly reading and playing board games and spending time with my family. Those three really rise to the top – and those three are going to be the focus of what I’m talking about in the rest of this article.

All three of those things that I mention require an investment of time.

It takes time to sit down and enjoy a board game – and if you enjoy playing them a lot, you’re going to have to devote time not only to playing, but also learning games and teaching games, too. You also have to have access to other people (most of the time – there are a few good solitaire board games out there).

It takes time to enjoy reading books. You have to put aside time to sit down with a book and dig in. Even if you split a book into lots of little pieces spread over weeks or months, you still have to devote some real time to reading, but if you’re like me and plow through a book a week or so, you have to spend some real chunks of time reading.

Your family takes time, too. You don’t build a deep trusting bond with your wife and with your children if you don’t spend a lot of time with them and give them serious and undivided attention. Without that genuine quality time, you simply can’t build the kind of relationship you’ll want.

I’m sure that, as you’re reading this, you’re thinking of your own core interests that you fill up your spare time with. Perhaps you’re passionate about woodworking or highbrow television shows. Maybe you’re an avid golfer or perhaps you enjoy creating art of some kind. Maybe you care deeply about your inner circle of friends, or maybe your time is absorbed by solitary pursuits. Whatever it is, there’s probably a thing or two that makes you tick. As I write about my own passions, think about yours in the same way.

Passion and Limited Time

Anyway, I have all of these things that I care deeply about that yearn to fill my spare hours, but the problem is that I don’t have all that many spare hours to begin with. I have professional responsibilities and community responsibilities and family responsibilities. Many days, I have very little time left over for my personal interests.

Take today, for example. I’m writing this article at about 11 PM after a very long day. I woke up at about 6 AM, helped the kids get ready for school, did some exercise, took a shower, took care of a few other things (one of which I’ll mention later), and sat down for work at about 9 AM. I wrote for about four hours, then spent two more hours taking care of some community responsibilities – mostly, making phone calls and taking some notes. After that, my children arrived home from school, so I made them an after school snack, spent some time with them talking about their day and helping my son with his math homework, and then spent the next hour or so making supper and doing household chores. This takes us to about 6 PM, after which I did a bit more housework, spent a bit more family time with all five of us, and then put the kids to bed, which was done by about 8:30. After that, I spent an hour or so recording a segment for a podcast, answered some emails, and now I’m working on this article.

Where’s the room for hobbies? The truth is that it’s pretty limited.

So, where am I going with this and what does it have to do with money?

The Danger of ‘Artificial Replacement’

Whenever I consistently cut quality time for my main interests out of my life, I start to long for them. As you saw in that “typical” day, I do make room for spending time with my family, but my other two main interests are absent. If that happens too many days in a row, I start to really miss reading. I start to really miss playing thoughtful board games with friends.

What happens after that? I start to substitute. When I don’t have the opportunity to sit down for an hour or even for half an hour and really get lost in a book, I start looking for an alternative way to fill in the tiny slices of time that I do have. I’ll spend money.

Let’s say I haven’t had the joy of getting lost in a book for the last several days. When that happens, if I’m sitting somewhere with my phone and have a few minutes to spare, I’ll spend those minutes browsing new book releases on Amazon and I’ll buy one.

That little pleasure of buying a new book – and of receiving it in the mail when it’s delivered or seeing it pop up on my Kindle – is kind of an “artificial replacement” for the thing I really want to do, which is to simply kick back and enjoy a book for half an hour or so once every day or two.

A similar thing happens with board games. If I hadn’t had the chance to sink my teeth into a really thoughtful board game lately, I’ll start missing the experience. Eventually, I’ll start browsing online game stores like Coolstuffinc and I’ll become very tempted to buy – and sometimes I do.

That little pleasure of buying a new board game – and of receiving it and punching out the pieces and reading the rules – is kind of an “artificial replacement” for the thing I really want to do, which is to simply hang out with some friends for a few hours and play a board game or two that causes me to think and have a great experience with those people at the same time.

In other words, there’s a tendency to spend money to create an “artificial replacement” for something we want in our lives, but don’t have adequate time for.

I see this often with family situations. A husband who hasn’t been around lately due to career choices or other things will buy gifts for his wife and children to “make up” for that lost time. Parents will buy a video game console or a laptop for a child because they’re not spending enough time together and the parents only are aware of the most superficial of desires, yet feel guilty for that lack of a connection.

How I Broke Free from ‘Artificial Replacements’

For a long time, I bought into these “artificial replacements,” big time. I had a huge book collection. I had a huge DVD collection. I had a huge unplayed video game collection. I had a huge vintage baseball card and trading card collection. I collected golf clubs and countless other things, too.

The first real change I made to that philosophy was realizing that experiences trump things. The experience of doing something is much more valuable than simply having an item in your possession. Experiences usually cost very little, while items cost a lot. Experiences require no maintenance, while stuff requires storage and often some degree of maintenance. Experiences require no space, while stuff requires square footage.

The experience of actually reading a book trumps having a book sitting on your bookshelf. The experience of playing a game trumps having a game sitting in your closet. The experience of playing golf trumps having an expensive golf club in your garage. The experience of watching a movie trumps having a DVD or a Bluray in your living room.

Of course, as I described earlier, the act of buying something is often just an “artificial replacement” for the actual experience of something. The experience is much better, but it doesn’t help if you don’t have the time for it.

For a long time, this push-and-pull between understanding that experiences were better than things and time compressing my opportunity for experiences and causing me to substitute “artificial replacements” by opening my wallet was a real challenge.

I solved it by coming to a simple realization. There are a few core things in my life that I really value that bring me joy – spending time with my family, reading, playing board games, and exercising among them.

What is my life if I don’t have those core things in it?

The truth is that it’s a pretty empty experience. When I squeeze the experiences that really bring me joy out of my life, then I’m unhappy. That unhappiness manifests itself in the form of “artificial replacements,” which hurts my financial situation as well. (Sure, I might get a short-term burst of pleasure from the purchase of that artificial replacement, but that’s not enough.)

The Simple Solution

The solution that I’ve discovered is really simple. Schedule some blocks of time every week for undivided focus on the things you care about the most. If you don’t have room in your life for this, then start discarding the other things that are less important.

Let me show you what I mean from my own life.

Each day, I have penciled off at least one hour and usually three hours of undivided family time. The cell phones and electronics are off (unless they’re a key part of a family activity) and we’re doing something together. Maybe we’re playing in the yard. Maybe we’re working on a family project. Maybe we’re putting together a puzzle in the basement. Maybe we’re watching a movie as a family. Whatever it is, it’s part of a block of time that isn’t interrupted for anything else.

Each week, I spend time with each of two different board gaming groups – one on Sunday afternoons and another on Monday evenings. I go there and play games to my heart’s content. During those times, Sarah watches the kids, but I make up for that by watching them when she does things like go to her choral group, go to her martial arts practices, and goes to her women’s book club.

Each day, I block off one uninterrupted hour to read a book. (Sometimes, I’ll read a bit more before bed, too, if I’m not exhausted.) For example, in that description of my day earlier, this is how I filled my 8 AM to 9 AM hour.

I like to call this philosophy “time frugality.” Much like money-based frugality, the key here is to use my time as wisely as possible. I give time to the things that really matter to me and cut back on time given to things that are less important to me.

That points to the answer to the question that most people ask when they hear this idea: where do you find the time? The truth is that I have basically eliminated time spent on the other non-required activities in my life.

For starters, I basically don’t watch television any more. The last time I looked at our television was during our family movie night last Friday as part of time I’d blocked off for family time. Before that, I watched a movie with Sarah one evening a little more than a week ago as part of time I’d blocked off for family time. I actually rarely go into the room where the television is at all. Many days will go by where I either don’t go into that room or I only go through it as I’m walking to another room. Several years ago, I watched two or three hours of television a day and that’s just dwindled to virtually nothing.

I de-committed from a couple community groups I was in, instead choosing to focus on the two groups that I’m really active in. This saved me time while also enabling me to really make an impact with the two remaining groups.

I stopped visiting a handful of time-eating websites that weren’t bringing me fulfillment. I still visit a healthy number of sites, but the ones that are left actually provide me with useful information or support me in some positive way.

This left me with substantial time each and every day, time that I can pencil off and devote to the things I care about the most.

The end result is that I actually get to experience the things I enjoy the most and not just buy “artificial replacements.”

In the past, for example, I had to strictly budget my “fun” spending each month because I could easily go off the rails spending it on things associated with my passions – those pesky “artificial replacements.”

Recently, that hasn’t been a problem at all. I’ve mostly been saving my “fun” spending each month for the future simply because I’m feeling fulfilled in the present. Because I’m actually devoting real time and energy to my passions, I no longer feel the need to channel money into “artificial replacements.” It’s a change that’s had a significant and measurable positive impact, not only on our finances, but also on my personal sense of happiness.

Solving the ‘Artificial Replacement’ Problem in Your Life

Here are three key suggestions I have for you if the idea of spending too much money on “artificial replacements” hits home for you.

Solution #1: Identify Your Three or Four Key Passions

I think all of us split our time amongst a lot of different things that we care about. Our family. Our favorite television programs. Personal hobbies. Our family. Our social network.

The problem is that when we spread ourselves too thin across too many things, we find ourselves not devoting enough time to the core things we really care about and instead giving that time to things we care about less. We give up real family time for PTA meetings. We give up reading a powerful and life-changing book in exchange for a sitcom rerun.

And before we know it, we no longer have much time for the things we care about the most. That motorcycle sits in the garage, unridden. Those games sit on the shelf, unplayed. That woodworking equipment sits on the bench, unused.

Look around your life. What are the three or four things that you most enjoy spending your spare time on? For me, it’s family time, reading, and board games, with exercise and walking making up the fourth (if there are four). Everything else is really secondary to those things in terms of how I spend my spare time.

Sure, if I had extra time, there are lots of hobbies I might dig into, but they would honestly have to replace one of those other ones when my interest in that hobby waned. Those three (and a half) interests are clearly the things I enjoy spending my time on the most. They’re the things I enjoy doing all the time.

Solution #2: Scale Back and Discard the Rest

The next step is to just start cutting back on everything else that isn’t essential in your time use. If you’re spending non-essential time on things that aren’t one of those three or four key interests, cut back. Cut way back.

This is much like frugality. When you’re being frugal with your money, you give adequate money to the things you really care about and cut everything else back to the bone.

If television isn’t one of those key interests, cut the cord. If web browsing isn’t one of those key interests, close the web browser. If going to meetings for a community group you don’t care about much any more isn’t one of those key interests, find a way to tastefully drop back from that group. If a hobby you used to love isn’t one of those key interests, sell off your stuff and use it as a “reservoir” for your handful of current passions.

Remember, just because you used to be passionate about something doesn’t mean you need to hang onto it forever. It’s okay to back away from old passions that have died out.

Solution #3: Block Off Time for Those Key Passions Using the Time Saved From Discarding the Lesser Ones

If you start cutting away at the other non-essential and non-passionate parts of your life, you’ll find that you suddenly have more free time than you thought. Use that free time smartly.

I strongly encourage you to start blocking off time during your week for those key interests that you have, whatever they may be. If you decide to cut the cord on television, for instance, you likely suddenly have quite a few more hours per week. If you cut back on your non-essential commitments, you probably have more hours. If you cut back on aimless web surfing, you may have even more hours. If you stop trying to keep up with a hobby that doesn’t have that spark any more, you have even more hours.

So put those hours to good use. Devote an evening or two a week – or an hour each day – to each of your true passions. Join a group in your area that is all about that thing you care most about. Start a game night or a movie night at your own house. Start checking out books from the library and .

For me, time for my key interests is actually scheduled in my days. I usually have an hour to read a book and I have two game nights a week, plus I have one to three hours a day for uninterrupted family time. That time is important and it’s rarely interrupted.

Outside of that time? I take care of business. I work. I take care of household chores. I go grocery shopping. I handle all of the nuts and bolts of life. If there happens to be a little bit of time left over, I can spend it on secondary hobbies, but I don’t really make any real commitment to them.

What if my interests change? I ask myself that fairly often and, for quite a while, they really haven’t. If they do, then I’ll walk away from that passion for a while and block off time for a new interest. If it seems like that shift is permanent, I’ll start selling off my stuff from my old hobby.

Final Thoughts

In the end, spending my time on stuff of lesser importance to me has nothing but bad consequences. It means I’m not spending time on my true passions. It also means that I’m often spending money on “artificial replacements” that don’t really leave me feeling fulfilled.

By simply devoting time to the things I care most about, I don’t need to spend money on “artificial replacements.” My spending has dropped drastically and I feel more fulfilled with how I spend my time.

If the idea of “artificial replacements” sounds familiar to you, start making changes. Spend some time thinking about what you care most about in your life, commit to scheduling time for those things, and drop out of the less important things. Life is too short to spend it on things of lesser importance, and money is too valuable to waste it because you’re feeling unfulfilled.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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