Happy Money: Principle Three – Buy Time

“Spend the afternoon.  You can’t take it with you.”  Annie Dillard

“By switching to a new game…time becomes the only possession and everyone is equally rich in it by biological inheritance.  Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live.”  – Rolf Potts 


In a recent “Dilbert” comic strip the pointy haired boss asks engineers Dilbert, Wally, and Alice if they would rather have more days off or more pay?  When they each respond they would rather have more days off he turns to Catbert, the evil HR Director, and says, “You were right – we’re paying them too much.” 

As this comic strip demonstrates happiness is often a delicate balance between time and money.  And in this case Dilbert, Wally, and Alice, generally not known for being especially astute, chose correctly, for a mountain of evidence shows that once we are making enough money to provide for our needs, and some of our wants, more money doesn’t buy us more happiness but more time does.  Thus the third principle of smarter spending: Buy Time!

I had to learn this principle the hard way.  I quit my job in my mid-thirties, with a wife and four children to support, and went back to school to get my masters of accounting.  Upon graduation I took a job with Ernst and Young doing tax returns for expatriates – American citizens working overseas.

The pay was good, not great, but the hours were terrible, especially during tax season.  So terrible that I couldn’t even have a life for three months of the year.  Sometimes I would think to myself, “It is only three months, and the rest of the year isn’t too bad.  I can handle it.”  Then another part of me would respond, “Wait a minute, three months of every year is a quarter of your life.  What are you doing?” 

After a couple years of this I was terribly unhappy and looking for another job, but the last straw came during my third tax season with Ernst and Young.  I had a couple of young daughters that I didn’t see at all during tax season except on Sundays.  They were asleep when I left for work in the morning and asleep when I returned late at night.

One night when I got home my wife Alice told me a story that broke my heart.  She said my eight-year-old daughter, Shannon, knew someone at school whose parents were getting a divorce.  With me being gone all the time she started getting suspicious.  She said to Alice, “I haven’t seen dad around here much lately; did you kick him out?” 

I already knew my working hours during tax season were a problem but this story really drove the point home.  Family has always been the most important thing to me and I knew I had to make a change.

My hand was forced following my third tax season.  I was laid off as E&Y started sending expatriate tax returns to India to be prepared.  That’s right, even preparing United States income tax returns is not immune to outsourcing! 

It took a while but I was eventually able to get a job with the US Government as an auditor for the Department of Defense.  My new job was less money but, except for an occasional trip out of town, it allowed me to be home with my family every night.  I had purchased back a quarter of my life for a surprisingly small amount of money and my happiness instantly increased.  It was undoubtedly the best purchase I have ever made.

Money Affluence and Time Affluence

The delicate balance between time and money required to create happiness can be illustrated by the drawing below: 

Buy Time

In order to create opportunities to make enough money to satisfy your needs, and some of your wants, you must obtain enough education, training, and skills to create opportunities for a rewarding career.  This will allow you to build the base of the fulcrum wide enough, and the sides high enough, so that the tip of the fulcrum is above the “Need/Want Threshold.”

Once this threshold is reached the goal is to keep your entire see-saw above the threshold by balancing your needs for money and time.  Putting too much emphasis on making more money can cause the time end to dip below the threshold, and vice versa. 

An interesting phenomena is that many of the people most capable of buying free time, don’t.  Happy Money reports on studies conducted throughout the developed world showing that those with more money generally report having less free time and more stress. 

In other words, money affluence often leads to time poverty, which makes happiness elusive.  This might be one of the reasons more money doesn’t bring the happiness we expect it to.  As Happy Money states, “Greater material affluence may fail to yield to more happiness in part because of the diminished time affluence it often brings.” 

Practical Applications

The cure is to take the approach of Dilbert, Wally, and Alice and, once you make enough money to meet your needs and some wants, make the conscious decision to trade money for time.  What does this look like in practice?

People report feeling most unhappy when working, commuting, shopping, and doing housework.  This suggests the following strategies:

  • Working – Find a job that allows you to work and have a life. While you might give up some monetary rewards you might find, as I did, that the cost is more than reasonable. 
  • Commuting – Move closer to your work or find a job closer to your home. Working at home, and eliminating your commute altogether, is another option with certain types of jobs.  If none of these options work, consider public transportation.  Studies show that commuting by bus or train is much less stressful than driving.  Several years ago I passed the CPA exam and the only studying I did was during my commute each day on the bus and train.  My commute was not only less stressful but a very productive use of time.
  • Shopping – I’m not crazy about shopping, but I know some people are, so I was mildly surprised to see this on the list of things that make people miserable. Less shopping leads to more time affluence and more money affluence, which might make it one of the most powerful tools available in increasing happiness. Shopping on the internet and using home delivery businesses for groceries and other items you use regularly are other ways to buy back time usually used shopping.        
  • Housework – Pay someone to do your most dreaded chores and take the time you buy to participate in your favorite activity.

The bottom line is that if you have reached even a modest level of material affluence time is just as important as money and balance between the two is essential to happiness.  While a certain amount of money is important having the time to do the things you love is what makes life enjoyable. 

The key is to play a new game where each decision you make values time as much as money.  Indeed, when it comes to increasing happiness perhaps the most important purchase you can make is to use some of your money to buy time!    


Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts inspired by the book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton.  The series will consist of an introduction and a post about each of the book’s five principles of smarter spending.

  16 comments for “Happy Money: Principle Three – Buy Time

  1. Gary Nilsen
    March 8, 2017 at 9:21 am

    Very well said couldn’t agree more!

    • Brent Esplin
      March 8, 2017 at 11:33 am

      Thanks, Gary. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Ian
    March 17, 2017 at 6:51 am

    Thanks for writing this article. I am in a very similar situation, I’m in my thirties, finishing a master’s of accounting in May and starting public accounting in June but only one kid at home. I am leaving a career with a good hours but very poor pay (social work) and this article has really got me thinking.

    • Brent Esplin
      March 17, 2017 at 8:27 am

      You should think seriously about a job in government accounting. I wish I would have done it right out of college. You won’t get rich but you will have enough money and enough time to have a life. I recommend looking into it. Good luck with whatever path you choose.

      • Hard L
        March 17, 2017 at 4:58 pm

        Interesting that you, in retrospect, recommend a government job as a career and you now work for a department that can not undergo an audit.

        Btw, the quote at the front is “Rolf”.


        • Brent Esplin
          March 17, 2017 at 6:04 pm

          You are certainly right on the quote. Thanks so much for the correction. I am not sure what point you are making as far as the DoD and audits. You will have to clarify and then I can respond. Thanks again.

  3. Drsan1
    March 17, 2017 at 7:11 am

    Thank you for this article. As a physician/wife/mom of 3, I actually felt guilty if I wasn’t busy all the time. Once my kids went to school that time was used to work, to make money. Money is measurable so I felt productive, however I was losing time with my kids, family and for myself. Your writing puts things in the perfect perspective, once you have enough money/wealth, time actually is more valuable…because you can’t get it back.

    • Brent Esplin
      March 17, 2017 at 8:24 am

      It is definitely a balancing act, but time is at least as important as money. While there are sometimes no easy answers thinking seriously about trading some money for more time is a good start. Good luck wrestling with these important issues.

  4. March 17, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    My parents had a similar experience when my sister and I were a child. Our dog had died recently, and mom explained that Shadow went to heaven. My mom came out on the porch one day to find my younger sister crying. When she asked what was the matter, my sister said “We don’t see Shadow anymore because Shadow went to heaven. We don’t see daddy anymore, did daddy go to heaven too?” Mom immediately drove us in to town to see our dad at work. He started working fewer hours after that.

    • Brent Esplin
      March 17, 2017 at 4:33 pm

      Great story. Thanks for sharing it. Stories like that are a great reminder of what is important, and time spent with kids is more important than money.

  5. March 19, 2017 at 9:08 am

    This article hits home right about now. I’m in the tail end of my fifth busy season in public accounting. That story you told about your daughter is exactly why I will not be doing this when we start our family. To me, working isn’t worth it. I loved the way you said it, once you make enough money to survive/get by, time becomes significantly more valuable. And public accounting is not an industry that caters to that thought process/methodology. I’m sorry it took you three seasons to learn this lesson, but I’m really excited you realized it before it was too late. Thanks for the great thoughts this morning. Much appreciated.


    • Brent Esplin
      March 19, 2017 at 12:58 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience. That is certainly what I found out. Public accounting might be alright for a few years if you are young and single. It provides some good experience and looks good on your resume. But I found it almost impossible to maintain any kind of work/life balance during parts of the year. Good luck with your next steps in life. It sounds like you are at least a couple of steps ahead of where I was at that stage of my life.

  6. March 19, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    Right now I’m lucky enough to have a fair bit of time, and no family to really spend it with so I’m happy to work long hours now and save that money for the day when I’ll want to come home to a family each night and on weekends. I know there will be a shift like your graph above so I’m preparing for it now.
    One day I might outsource the housework, definitely on my ‘crappy’ list.

    • Brent Esplin
      March 19, 2017 at 9:49 pm

      Saving money now to buy time later is a great way to use this principle. Sounds like you have a great plan. Thanks for sharing.

  7. March 23, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    What a well written piece! As someone who has often made the same decision as Dilbert, I appreciated reading a well composed argument to why time is so valuable to our happiness. And… I am definitely one of the people who would put shopping on the unpleasant tasks list! I happen to enjoy my job though. 🙂

    • Brent Esplin
      March 23, 2017 at 5:56 pm

      Thanks for the kind words on my post. Loving your job and not liking to shop is a great combination for making progress financially and being able to use money to buy time. Keep up the good work.

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