We tend to think of money in terms of dollars. And that makes sense, because that’s how most things are priced. You go to the store, you see an item on the shelf, and you look at how many dollars it costs. That system of currency-based value seems to work pretty well, because basically everyone uses it. Everyone gets paid with cash, so cash makes sense to become the instrument with which we trade for the stuff we need to live our lives. It’s a great equalizer, too, because all of us, everyone, knows that no matter what your education level, or skin color, or faith, or job title, if you go to the drive-through and order a cheeseburger off the value menu, it’s $1.00. We don’t have to argue about it, or have interviews about what a dollar means to you vs. me, we just pay the dollar, and we get the burger.
But personal finance isn’t all about making sure everything is equal. Personal finance is about making sure you are making the right decisions with what you have been given from your Creator. Personal finance takes all those nuances about who you are into account: your education, or lack thereof, might affect your income rate. Your skin color might affect how business owners deal with you and what sort of prices you pay. Your faith might dictate where and how you can spend your paycheck. Your family size might alter your life’s goals. Your economic background might have a role in what sorts of opportunities you have during crucial moments in life. Personal finance is tricky because it’s all about taking this swirling vortex full of constantly changing variables that we call “your life” and trying to create a plan for it.
So instead of looking at money in terms of dollars and cents, what if we looked at it in terms of something that we actually do all have in common: time? After all, our paycheck is just an exchange of time, skills, and experience for cash, right? And every one of us has the exact same number of minutes in every day. With that in mind, let’s go back to the earlier example. When you go to the drive-through, that burger costs one dollar, but how much did that dollar cost you? If you’re seven years old, maybe that dollar was the result of finishing an entire night’s worth of homework on time one evening. If you’re a high-powered business executive, maybe that dollar came to you in 30 seconds’ worth of your beauty sleep. Either way, was the burger a fair trade? Was the time you put into earning that dollar well met with the reward of the burger? Looking at our bank accounts in terms of how much of our time it took to reach that number changes the game a little bit.
This comparison thing that we all tend to do on social media is the result of a flawed premise: that my money means the same to me as your money means to you. Therefore, when I see you dropping a few hundred dollars on a night out or buying a fancy new Tesla a month after you announced your wife’s pregnancy, I make the incorrect assumption that what you’re doing is wrong, because I look at your spending based on my earning. You didn’t spend your paycheck on my debt, or put it towards my goals, or use it on things I value, so I see it as wasted. But what if your cash is worth less time than mine? What if that night out came from a couple hours of hard work for you, instead of the several days it would have taken me? Or that new car, what if it you the reason you can buy it and I can’t is because you spent your time up until now wisely, and I’ve made quite a few mistakes with mine? Sure, we can make objective judgments about things that obviously need fixing with other people’s decisions, and we shouldn’t shy away from helping people that are ready and asking for that help. But as much as we like to pretend we live in a world where everyone’s the same, we really don’t. So we can’t make decisions for other people based on what the same circumstances would mean in our own lives.
Using time as currency can help us keep from comparing ourselves to other people, but it’s also key to developing our own paths through life. If you’re working part-time at a low wage job in order to help put yourself through college, you may be pressured to go spend $20 on dinner with friends. Let’s say that dinner lasts an hour, and it cost you three working hours. Is that a fair trade? Maybe it is worth it to blow off some steam once in a while, but what if those three hours were spent studying instead? Sure, you can’t pay for anything with study hours, but let’s say those hours make the difference between passing and failing a class you’re struggling in. All of a sudden, your three hours of study make your future hours more valuable, if a college degree commands a higher salary in the work you do.
I’m currently having to convince myself I don’t want an Apple Watch about twice a day. The emotional side of me knows it would be cool to have, and I’d probably really enjoy wearing it. The analytical side of me knows that if I saved long enough, I could afford the price tag, no problem. But thinking about how many hours I would need to trade in order to take one home is a powerful reminder that I don’t need one. Seeing a price tag of over $300 causes a little bit of a heart flutter, but that’s easily overcome. And then I think that there are only four weeks every month, and I’d need the better part of a full one to pay for that watch, so then I start to reconsider my priorities. Thinking of my purchases and spending in terms of how long it takes me to earn that much money is an excellent motivator to keep on track, to remind myself of what I really need vs. what I want, and also to better myself and my position so that my future time is worth more. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll wear one of those suits that lets me buy an Apple Watch with my morning commute.
Overall, your time (and your money) should have an trajectory of increasing value over time. Time is an investment vehicle much the same as any number-based account is. If enough of it is spent wisely, the returns will be fantastic down the road. And not just from a monetary wealth standpoint. Time spent with a spouse will result in a richer marriage. Time spent with kids will result in a stronger family bond. Time spent on self improvement will provide benefits just about everywhere.
We only get a finite amount of time while we’re here on Earth. What will you spend yours on?