How to trade money and time

Time has a monetary value to you. That is, money and time can be traded for one another in lots of circumstances, and there are prices that you are willing to take and prices you are not. Hopefully, other things equal, the prices you are willing to take are higher than the ones you aren’t.

Sometimes people object to the claim that time has a value in terms of money, but I think this tends to be a misunderstanding, or a statement about the sacredness of time and mundanity of money. I also suspect that the feeling that time is sacred and money is in some sense not prompts people who believe that money and time can be compared in value in principle to object to actually doing it much. There are further reasons you might object to this too. For instance, perhaps having an explicit value on your time makes you feel stressed, or cold calculations make you feel impersonal, or accurate appraisals of your worth per hour make you feel arrogant or worthless.

Still I think it is good to try to be aware of the value of your time. If you have an item, and you trade it all day long, and you don’t put a consistent value on it, you will be making bad trades all over the place. Imagine if you accepted wages on a day to day basis while refusing to pay any attention to what they were. Firstly, you could do a lot better by paying attention and accepting only the higher ones. But secondly, you would quickly be a target for exploitation, and only be offered the lowest wages.

I don’t think people usually do this badly in their everyday trading off of time and money, because they do have some idea of the trades they are making, just not a clear one. But many other things go into the sense of how much you should pay to buy time in different circumstances, so I think the prices people take vary a lot when they should not. For instance, a person who would not accept a wage below $30/h will waste an hour in an airport because they don’t have internet, instead of buying wifi for $5, because they feel this is overpriced. Or they will search for ten minutes to find a place that sells drinks for $3 instead of $4, because $4 is a lot for a drink. Or they will stand in line for twenty minutes to get the surprisingly cheap and delicious lunch, and won’t think of it as being an expensive lunch now.

I agree that time is very valuable. I just disagree that you should avoid putting values on valuable things. What you don’t explicitly value, you squander.

It can be hard to think of ways that you are trading off money and time in practice. In response to a request for these, below is a list. They are intended to indicate trade-offs which might be helpful if you want to spend more money at the expense of time or vice versa in a given circumstance. Some are  written as if to suggest that you should move in one direction or the other especially – remember that you can generally move in the opposite direction also.

Waste things, or waste time

If your possessions take time to deal with (e.g. your boxes of papers take time to glance through, or sort through, or climb through), you can keep fewer items, and pay more for a thing when you need it.

Spend time fixing things, or throw them out.

Spend time washing things, or treat them as disposable.

Reuse or recycle things, or not.

Spend time saving food, or not.

Buy five shampoos, and choose the best one, instead of experimenting each time you buy one and using the whole bottle.

Eat things that have a small chance of destroying your day tomorrow, or throw them out.

Use suboptimal items that you already own, or get rid of them and buy new ones. e.g. if you have a heater, but it takes ten minutes to heat up, and in that time you don’t do anything other than huddle coldly, you could get a new one.

Social value (respect, love, connections)

Pay more to show your affection, or invest time in it. You can give more expensive, objectively good gifts instead of cheaper but subjectively well suited ones. You can also of course spend more money or more time on acquiring a gift.

Spend more to go to events where you will meet exactly the people you want.

Spend more to improve experiences with people you love. Less time which is more memorable may be as good as more time spent watching TV together. If your time will be taken up during an event, so you can’t focus your attention on the guests, you can pay to avoid this. e.g. instead of cooking dinner for friends, have someone else cater, or if that feels weird, pay to go somewhere else where someone else can cater more easily.

If you can either visit your friend or they can visit you, you can pay for them to have a better time visiting you, in return for accepting the travel time. Or vice versa. Explicitly or not.

If you lack some social skills, you can take lessons to improve them instead of gradually improving with time. e.g. if you fear speaking to crowds, you can gradually improve (spending a lot of time on unprofitable crowd discussions in the meantime), or join toastmasters (at a cost of money and time), or take lessons (at presumably higher cost but less time cost).

Skills

In general, you can practice on your own, or with a book or something, or take lessons, or hire a private tutor. In general, I’d guess the more expensive ones are faster, though education seems tricksy – a degree is very expensive, and I’m not confident is better than a few books.

Enjoyment and relaxation

Buy better games, where you get more enjoyment or relaxation per minute.

Relax cheaply, by browsing the internet or watching tv, or perhaps more efficiently and expensively, e.g. by getting a massage, or going to the theatre, or something that floats your boat.

Quality work time

There are various ways you can pay to make your time more valuable, instead of more extensive. You can pay to make your environment better for working in. You can even pay what seems like unfairly much, e.g. buying overpriced internet or drinks at an airport, if it will make you spend your time there well. You can incentivize yourself with what would be extravagances.

Outsourcing labor

Virtual assistants can be very cheap (~$2/h), however are often not very reliable, and take time to deal with. This is best if you have tasks which are easy to explain, and somewhat long (as there is likely to be up front cost of explaining and ironing out misunderstandings). e.g. collecting fairly straightforward data from a lot of places. Odesk is good for this, as you don’t need to have any long term commitment. This means you can experiment, and find reliable people and tasks they can do well virtually.

Local personal assistants are more expensive, but perhaps still less expensive than you, and probably around as efficient at many tasks. There are services which sell small amounts of personal assistant time, or you can look for whatever arrangement you want in the domestic gigs section of Craigslist.

Often people can’t think of things they could outsource to a personal assistant. Here is a miscellaneous list of things you can use a personal assistant to do:

  • shopping
  • arrange to get your car/computer/glasses fixed
  • home maintenance
  • find a well reviewed dentist
  • make an appointment
  • simple fact checking
  • find research articles regarding something you want to know about, and summarize their findings
  • make phone calls
  • decide what you should eat
  • acquire food
  • cook
  • find a cheap cleaner
  • mail stuff
  • determine which products to buy
  • find good software to use
  • transcribe things
  • fill out forms
  • find out phone providers’ rules regarding unlocking phones
  • handle payments
  • find out requirements to get a drivers licence
  • organize events (book venue, get food)
  • build furniture
  • do laundry, ironing, other housework
  • find cheap storage
  • wrap christmas presents
  • furnish your living room
  • put things in your calendar
  • book travel
  • figure out when you should leave home to get to the airport on time

Another possibility is bartering. For instance offer cheap rent to someone who is willing to cook extra food for you.

Food

You can trade money and time in food preparation, eating, and cleaning up. Here are some ways:

  • Buy more or less prepared meals. This is a wide spectrum. You can grow your own food, buy basic ingredients, buy more ready-made ingredients, buy ready-made meals that are e.g. frozen or canned, buy take-out, get it delivered, go out, get a chef.
  • Buy food which takes more or less devoted time to eat. You can eat carrot sticks while you work, but you might have to take five minutes out to eat an orange. Carrot sticks may not cost any more than an orange, but something you like as much as an orange that is more convenient to eat may do.
  • When running larger events, you can also outsource more or less of the food preparation and cleaning up.
  • Plan your eating to save time vs. money. e.g. buy a more expensive breakfast on your commute, if the time there is hard to spend well, rather than using high quality time at home to prepare and eat something cheaper.
  • Pay a bit more for things that are easier to clean up. e.g. things that come in good containers for eating them from.
  • Pay someone else to cook and/or clean up (see ‘outsourcing labor’).
  • Eat out to avoid all cleaning up.

Location

Pay more rent to commute less.

Pay more to park closer.

Alter how far you will go to visit cheaper places. Eat at the expensive place nearby, or trek further away for a cheap place. Take this gas station, or the cheaper one you know of  a few blocks away. Have the dance classes on your campus, or the ones you have to catch a bus to get to.

Shopping

Do it online and have it delivered, or go to the store yourself. For groceries, some people find this doesn’t save time. This probably depends on your buying preferences and how far you must physically move to get to the store. Also you will need to know ahead of time that you will want groceries in the future. For other non-grocery items, something like Amazon seems much quicker than going to a store, and only a little more expensive. There are also miscellaneous services to bring you stuff immediately, or to do your shopping where the supermarket itself does not provide home delivery.

Machines

Spend more for faster and less defective computers and phones.

Use labor saving appliances more or less. e.g. drying machine vs. hanging clothes.

Spend more for better appliances. e.g. a dishwasher that works well, rather than having to check and rinse and unclog things often. An efficient coffee maker. A fast microwave. 

Fixing things

In general, if things are broken you can fix them, get someone else to fix them, or buy a new one. These are more or less time and money intensive.

Search time

In general, you can buy more expensive things or spend more time looking for cheap ones. This goes for flights, books, pay-to-view articles, apps, parking spaces,  food, etc. Especially watch out for free things (see ‘free things’).

Free things

Many things can be attained for free in terms of money, at the expense of time spent watching ads or attending suboptimal social events for instance. This is excellent if you value money a lot more than time. If you place a high value on your time, you may need to exert conscious effort to ignore the intuitive lure of such offers.

Cheap things

You can collect coupons and watch for sales, or avoid such work and pay more. 

You can buy second hand or slightly dubious items that are cheaper but require more messing around to make them work.

8 responses to “How to trade money and time

  1. I’ve often argued that “wasting” time to save some money is actually a form of precommiitment: if you can precommit to paying less in money even if the time makes the savings not worth it, you encourage stores to reduce their prices. But that means that if the store refuses to reduce their prices, you have to select the worse option, since that’s how precommitment works.

    I also think that many of the things you can use a personal assistant to do don’t benefit you not only because of the cost of a personal assistant, but because of the cost in communicating your preferences to the personal assistant. Also, a personal assistant has other costs than the direct cost of paying the personal assistant–unless you’re in 1900 paying a servant who you can freely throw out on the street based on the slightest suspicion, the personal assistant could damage you in many ways without being punished for it.

    Also don’t forget taxes. This particularly matters when you suggest barter.

  2. This is very good! A practical rundown of something I’ve explored on my blog (otherwise not a very philosophical place yet), and would like to explore more in future.

    http://aarongertler.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/the-audience-members-dilemma/

  3. Making back of the envelope calculations of various time/money exchanges, can be interesting – http://lesswrong.com/lw/fk9/collating_widely_available_timemoney_trades/.

    One of these calculations convinced me to buy a smartphone. However, it turns out that the main cost in buying a smartphone is not monetary at all. The main cost is that I now have another way to use facebook when I am in bed or when my computer is blocking me. Buying the smartphone still seems positive EV but it is case study in the importance of using wide confidence intervals for Fermi estimates.

  4. You are discounting the fact, that most people only want to devote a limited amount of time per day to paid work. So if you save money during the time slot allocated to “leisure time”, that’s unrelated to what you do during “work time”

    Also, there are more factors involved than time and money. People have quaint ideas like reducing their carbon footprint by fixing/recycling or doing exercise by commuting by bike, etc.

    • You can solve problems like this one by adding a layer of indirection. Even for someone who works 40 hours a week and has a relatively fixed income, there is some price at which they would be willing to spend an extra hour working, and some amount of money they would sacrifice to spend an hour less working. Even if these two bounds are pretty far apart, knowing what they are lets you efficiently make tradeoffs you couldn’t otherwise.

  5. ” a person who would not accept a wage below $30/h will waste an hour in an airport because they don’t have internet, instead of buying wifi for $5, because they feel this is overpriced.”
    Yes, that’s me.

    “Or they will search for ten minutes to find a place that sells drinks for $3 instead of $4, because $4 is a lot for a drink.”
    That’s me.

    “Or they will stand in line for twenty minutes to get the surprisingly cheap and delicious lunch, and won’t think of it as being an expensive lunch now.”
    Not me, I hate queueing.

    I like to attribute my behaviour to altruism: I am helping to change the price/turnover graph of the seller, in a way that if they respond, it will (in my unanalysed view) make the world a better place. My wife attributes it to my Scottish ancestry.

  6. Great Article. As someone who lives in one of the most expensive cities in the world, I definitely have to consider the trade-off between time and money. I had a choice between living in the city with expensive rent or living on the outskirts with cheaper rent and more space. In the end, I chose to live in the city and I haven’t had any regrets :) Can’t complain about a ten minute commute to work.

  7. Pingback: GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 2 | Compass Rose

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