What’s worth more: time or money?

Is there any point to being cash-rich and time-poor? Oliver Burkeman asks which currency is worth more


What's worth more: time or money?

3 minute read

Say you were offered a better-paid job with a much longer commute, would you take it? Should you order a takeaway, so you can relax instead of having to cook? If you can afford to pay for a cleaner, is it money well spent? These are all twists on the same common dilemma: whether to give more importance to time or money. Psychological research makes it clear that you’ll be happier if you see time as more valuable than money. But it also shows that the majority of people – 64 per cent in one study – actually value money over time. If happiness is our goal, some of us have got our priorities wrong.

Most of us have to prioritise money in the sense of earning a living – but you still choose what you ultimately value in life. And if you see happiness as being all about money, research suggests you’ll be preoccupied by stressful thoughts about needing more of it – which explains why even multimillionaires can feel that they need more. If you put time first, on other hand, you’re more likely to focus on the delightful ways you could spend your free hours.

The point isn’t that you shouldn’t necessarily choose the better-paid job with the longer commute. It isn’t automatically wrong to choose money over time in any given situation; that depends on how much money you already have, and how much you need for an acceptable standard of life. Rather, the point is to approach all such decisions with the understanding that, in the final analysis, time is all that truly matters. Money, when you think about it, is only valuable because of how it changes our experience of time. (Anything you buy, from groceries to handbags, is only valuable insofar as it improves your time on the planet.) Time, on the other hand, is all we really have. Unlike money, it matters in itself, rather than for something else.

What this means in practical terms will depend on your circumstances. If you are busy and can afford to, it’s an argument for downshifting for more leisure. If you can reduce your commute, you should. And if you have disposable income, you should spend more of it on experiences than material goods. If your situation forces you to spend most of your time earning money just to scrape by, no practical change may be possible. But even then, the shift in mindset matters, because it provides a better answer to why you’re working so hard in the first place – not to accumulate money, but to improve the quality of your time, and the time of those you love. It’s a cliche that time is money – time is far more important than that.

Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

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