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Time is not money

‘Twasn’t long ago that I posted a comment to a blog in which I held forth on the rock-solid value of my time, which I calculated at around $60 an hour. That was the bargain rate. Platinum Edition: $200.


My time isn’t “worth” anything: it has no monetary value. Neither does yours. Like other clichés we use to order our lives, that fine old saying “time is money” has a nice ring to it, but it’s not the ring of a genuine silver dollar.

As metaphor, the “time is money” turn of phrase is just slightly off kilter. Time is more like water or air: something that is and should be freely available to everyone. You don’t have to work to earn time, or come into it by inheritance, or win it at the gambling table. You already have it. Is it limited? Yes. So is money. But that doesn’t make time the same as money. Water and air, as we’re rapidly learning, are limited, too. But they are not money. Like time, they can be manipulated to create money, but they are not the same as money. Time, water, and air are not intrinsically “worth” the same things that money is “worth”: they do not buy the same thing.

Here is a major source of stress in our lives: the disconnect between the way we think about time and what time really is.

This insight came to me the other day as I was trying to race around the city, charging from dreary destination to dreary destination so that I could get done with my errands, so that I could get on with something else. Every which way I turned, some clown pulled in front of me and ambled down the road at five miles an hour under the speed limit.

Flaring toward road rage, I growled at no one and everyone, What is the matter with these people! Don’t they know how much my time is worth? Where do they get off wasting someone else’s time? If I could have caught one of the morons, I’d have dragged him out of his car and throttled him right in the middle of the street. It felt very much like they were stealing from me: stealing time, stealing money.

The idea that our time possesses monetary value—that it is money—leads naturally to the feeling that it can be wasted, and that if someone else is doing the wasting, they’re effectively stealing something of great worth. It’s an idea that’s so universal you can’t escape it. As workers, we’re paid by the hour. Our vacation time and our sick leave are assigned monetary, hourly value. Lawyers and accountants and psychiatrists and therapists assess us by the hour, not by what they can do for us. We “budget” time; we “spend” time; we “waste” time.

If even half the other drivers out there subscribe to this point of view, I thought, it’s no wonder road rage has become a menace. Who wouldn’t be furious at the theft of something so valuable?

This attitude needs to change. Believing that something as commonplace as air must be husbanded, coveted, budgeted, and even somehow earned just naturally leads to greed, resentment, and stress. It’s hard to see past our culture’s insistence on assigning a monetary value to time—most of us are paid by the hour, leading us to think of life as something that can be broken into coin-like pieces. But that’s an illusion. We are paid for our skills and abilities, for the product of our intellectual or physical labor. The amount we can demand for our time depends not on how much time we have to sell but on how much our skills are valued.

Time is not money!

  • We don’t spend time: we pass time.
  • We don’t budget time: we write lists, make plans, and schedule appointments.
  • We don’t waste time: we idle or get distracted.

When you start looking at the minutes, the hours, and the days in this light, a whole new perspective dawns. Slow-moving traffic, a long line at the grocery checkout, a chatty acquaintance on the phone, a tedious meeting suddenly become a lot less frustrating, because none of them is taking anything of value away from you.

This is huge. A basic change in attitude—time is part of the environment, not the coin of the realm—relieves a vast amount of frustration and stress. It’s not an easy change, because it requires you to throw over a concept that permeates our lives. But what you get for the effort can’t be measured in coin.

Money buys stuff. Time buys experience, wisdom, and peace of mind.

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