That Age-Old Conundrum: Time vs. Money

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Have you ever thought, "If only I could do X, it wouldn't matter how much money I made?" Or maybe you've wondered, "Why do I feel like I do so much for so little compensation?" If you've had these or similar thoughts, you're not alone, and you're probably suffering from some disjointed thoughts about time and money.

Believe it or not, it's easy to get stuck living a life you're unhappy with because your time and your money aren't connected in the way you'd like them to be. If you don't think about it, you'll live a life that says you value what the people around you value, or what your parents taught you to value, but that may be a far cry from what you actually value. Here are some competing theories about the relationship between time and money, and some thoughts on figuring out what they mean to you.

Time is money

In this theory, your time is only as important as the amount of money you can make. You focus on a particular task for a particular amount of time and get paid a particular amount of money for your trouble. That money, and nothing else, shows you the value of your time.

Many people hold this as true, though some hold it to a greater extent than others. For many, this is only true during the work day, but personal time is different. But for others, this is a ruling principle of life. If you've ever felt like your personal value depended at all on your salary, that's evidence of this sort of thinking. 

It's key to note that this is the principle that most jobs are built around. An employer determines how much it's worth to him to have a person performing a certain task for a certain amount of time, and pays that wage. There are definitely complicating factors, but that's the basis on which salaries are determined. So this is a driving principle in Western culture (and increasingly in Eastern ones).

Time over money

If this is what you believe, then the amount of money you make doesn't mean much to you. You'd much rather have your time to yourself, or at least under your control, than let someone else control it for whatever amount of money they value it at. 

Do you work a lower-paying job because you get more days off or control your personal time? Then you might subscribe to this theory. Do you freelance because you want to be able to meet those friends for lunch whenever they're free? Then you definitely value controlling your time more than you value making a particular amount of money. 

Money over time

Would you rather work through weekends to have more cash, particularly if you get overtime? Is the stress of major responsibility worth it to you because you make more money when you take it on? If it came down to a decision between a date-night with your spouse and a few more hours that would net you some serious income, would you choose to work?

If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, then there are times when you value money over time. You want cash, whether it's for financial security or so you can buy that new toy, and you're willng to give up total control of your time (and other people's) to get it. 


In our daily lives, most of us subscribe to these different theories at different times. Maybe the success of our weekdays is determined by how much money we make, but that of our weekends determined by how much time we get to spend chillin' in front of the television. 

We also subscribe to these ideas to varying degrees. Sometimes, money is important, but only so long as a person can take two weeks of vacation every summer. Or maybe someone wants to stay home with their kids, but they also need to make a certain amount of money to live.

It doesn't matter how you fit these ideas together; what matters is that you know how they fit together for you!

Figuring it out

Ask yourself the questions below. Spend 5-15 minutes answering each one, either in discussion with someone else or in a journal. When you've finished answering, you'll have a pretty good idea as to what you value, how much you value it, and when you value something else entirely. 

1.  If you had the option to work over the weekend making double-time, would you do it? What if your kid had a big game on Saturday or you had planned a date to the Met? How would you justify your choice?

2. Looking over the last year, how often have you taken vacation? Sick days? Did you ever go to work instead of taking time off because being absent negatively effected your paycheck?

3. How do you look at your wages? Are they never enough, just right, or plenty for your needs? Do you feel like you trade your time for money? If so, is it a fair trade? If not, would you prefer more money or more free time?

If you feel the desire, share some of your responses with us. I'd love to know where Wisebread readers stand!

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Guest's picture

It seems like all of life comes down to time vs. money...cutting coupons or reading to your kids, getting stains out of clothes (which takes me forever) or cleaning the house, hanging out with my husband or working. I guess to me that would be the ultimate definition of financial freedom: not worrying about which to choose.

Love the article!

Guest's picture

When I went completely freelance 3 years ago I learned the value of time. I realized that having time and having the ability to choose how to spend that time was worth a great deal to me. I'm willing to earn a great deal less in order to have more time for myself. I need to pay the bills, of course, but no more 80 hour work weeks for me!

Guest's picture

When I was 14 I got my first real job. After about 4 days I quit.

When I came home and told my father I had quit he asked me why. My response was that I will never again sell an hour of my life for a handful of dollars. Ever.

I have basically worked for myself ever since starting my first full blown business at the age of 18.

Two decades later I would discover from my mother that my father, who has since passed, had never been more proud of me than in that moment.

Guest's picture

This question is at the root of my 2nd major career-changing decision.

I spent 5 years in my early 20s and thousands of dollars to get my MD from a top 10 med school. Eefore I applied, I was planning to practice for a few years, and then try and go nonprofit or corporate development... but during school I realized after residency and practice, I would've lost another 5-10 years which I could be using to fix some aspect of the healthcare system. The opportunity cost of lost time is tremendous, especially in your early career days.

I got a job in finance after graduation and it was absolutely the right decision. It's easier to advocate for patients from outside the walls of the hospital-- plus I have my life back and time with my family and friends, despite a potentially lower earning potential. Wouldn't have it any other way.

(That said, I'd go to med school all over again at the same age, given the opportunity. It was a humbling and incredible experience.)

Guest's picture

In high school and the first year of college I was working at minimum wage (then $3.10). As I had a full scholarship so no tuition, I was able to use the guaranteed (then $2500) loans for pocket money, knowing that when I had a real job it would take very little effort to make the payments. It was a gift my 22 year old self could give to my younger self and I never regretted doing it that way.

Now, I have a salaried position, but I plan my own schedule. I've never missed a function my daughter has had, as I plan around her dance recitals, school performances, or important games. My wife and I pay someone to clean the house and mow the lawn, but when my daughter showed me a desk in a catalog I knew she expected me to build it from scratch, and I did. We choose the things we care to do ourselves and sub out the rest. The trade off between time and money is different for each person, I suppose, but I think we found the right balance.