Here in FIRE land, we talk a lot about money but we don’t always talk enough about time. While we are working, we are trading our time for money. When we are FI, we no longer need to do so. Instead, our money is able to buy us time. The assumption is that we have things to do with our time that are so much more meaningful to us than working that it’s worth the cost to buy that time. That’s why I get so confused when I sometimes see people wasting a lot of time. It’s the same thing as wasting money. In fact, since your time is finite and money is not, time is even more valuable so you should think even more carefully about how to allocate it.
If you are pursuing FIRE because your job takes (wastes?) too many hours for you to live the life you want, then you should be equally intolerant of wasting time (i.e. your life) in other ways.
So what is the best way to avoid “wasting” time? Here, as is often preached on IBFree, it really helps to be introspective and understand yourself. What do you really love to do? When do you find yourself in a state of “flow”? These are the things to make time for.
All the other obligations on your time should be minimized.
Essentially, you are removing activities that provide you low personal value. They either disappear completely or are designed for minimal maintenance in your lifestyle.
Whenever you commit to something, really think about the time obligation you are making. For material things, you may find that the purchase is much more expensive than the sticker price shows or that the appeal of the item even goes away completely. Think about how often you will really use it and how much enjoyment you will really get from it. Really visualize it. Not just the pleasant parts, but all of the ownership experience. Where do you store it? Will it require ongoing maintenance? How much could you sell it for if you decide you don’t want it in the future? Will it just end up in a landfill when you’re done with it? Questions like these can help you look at your desire from a more rational personal perspective and lead to better choices. If you’re not willing to really commit to the full “ownership” experience, then you probably shouldn’t add it into your busy life.
As a specific example of what not to do, I’ll use my last home purchase.
In a relocation for work a few years back, we only had a few days to find a house and ended up finding a nice house that checked most of our boxes. It was close to work, in a good school district, a safe neighborhood with little traffic, was move-in ready, and within our target budget. The downside was that it was larger than we wanted and had a big yard. Since it was the house my wife liked the best and it had a lot of what we were looking for, we agreed this was the house we would get. But on the condition that my wife would do the mowing since I was not willing to spend time doing that 🙂
Overall we’ve been happy with the house. Utility bills haven’t been as high as I had feared and the house was in good shape, meaning there was no work we had to do to fix it up. This was very nice since we are quite busy and didn’t want to spend our spare time on a fixer.
The yard however is a good example of a large time commitment. We bought a riding mower since our push mower wasn’t going to cut it (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). So now I have two mowers for oil changes, sharpening blades, and other maintenance. Plus I ended up with a gas trimmer since my low cost electric one was outmatched by this yard. Then of course the rest of the ridiculous yard maintenance…..fertilizer, weed control, bug control, etc. I planted a number of trees and built a large fit pit area to take up some of the yard, but it’s still a big yard and we spend more time maintaining it than I’d prefer. At the same time however, compared to many others, our yard is not particularly high maintenance and I certainly know many people who spend a lot more time on their yards. Plus we are fine with an ok looking yard. It’s a lot more work to have a perfect lawn and that is of no value to me. Even though we minimize our time commitment, it’s just not how I would choose to spend my time if I was being really intentional about it. In my next home, my goal is to have a smaller yard or better yet, a forested or naturally landscaped yard that requires little ongoing maintenance.
Homeownership in general is a good way to give away a large portion of your time and money. In my work in the materials industry, I know how much spending and consumption is linked to household formation and new housing starts. An incredible amount of spending happens when people become homeowners.
Gas-driven machines found in most homes are one place where time and money disappears. Snowblowers, chainsaws, trimmers, leaf blowers, generators, air compressors, etc all require maintenance and it starts to add up when you collect a lot of these things, like many homeowners do. I try to minimize these things unless I really get personal value out of them. So I have a nice chainsaw but was happy to rid myself of a handed-down snowblower when it finally died several years ago. I’m also happy to rake instead of buying a leaf blower. And I’ve never felt the need to buy a generator since I’ve never had a personal life experience where I couldn’t manage for the time our household power was out. Each of these items are fairly expensive and when you buy the typical list of these that American homeowners have, the total amount can be shocking when you add it up. And that isn’t even counting the ongoing maintenance still required for these rarely used items.
The maintenance aspect of home ownership is the main reason I quickly abandoned a fleeting desire for a vacation home several years ago. It’s enough obligation to keep my primary residence going……I don’t really want to add another house to maintain. I also have avoided getting a pool, boat, or recreational vehicles for both ongoing costs and the time required for upkeep. I know too many people who bought these things with grand visions of using them a lot, only to find that they rarely use them but still have to maintain them.
So being a homeowner is a huge potential black hole for the time freedom you want. Having said that, it is also very rewarding to many people, including myself, so I’m not here to judge or say being a homeowner is a bad idea. But tread carefully and really understand what you are signing up for.
What about other examples?
Another example of valuing your time is looking at “extreme” couponing where people can get amazing deals. 50, 70, 90% off! Sometimes even free! But it takes a lot of time and effort. When you factor the time in, the amount of money you save is relatively small. A better option is to change your mindset so that winning the next “deal” is less of a high for you. Instead, get to the point where shopping is just done when you need something. I also find that the thing I want is inevitably not the item that is on a really good sale. Since I research and identify what I want before buying, I’m not interested in getting an alternative that isn’t what I want, even if it’s cheaper (within reason of course). If you do minimal shopping, even paying full price isn’t a big deal. You still save a lot of money compared to people that shop “deals” all the time.
Another option is to automatic your search for sales. A site like camelcamelcamel that tracks prices for your wish list items on amazon is a good example. Just forget about it until you get an email with your target price on the item. This is a lot more efficient than constantly checking for sales.
Shopping in general can be a very inefficient activity that takes too much time. A huge side benefit of getting away from shopping as a hobby is that you accumulate a lot less stuff and the stuff you do collect is very value-adding to you. The significantly lower clutter will give you peace of mind and reduce the amount of time needed to constantly fight entropy as all your stuff inevitably scatters around your living space and collects in drawers.
Another example I suspect is near and dear to the hearts of many readers is in personal finance including saving, investment management, bill pay, etc. Many of us (strange as though it seems to most people) actually enjoy personal finance. However, you should still focus your time and effort on the parts that you enjoy the most and minimize your effort on the rest. Automate your savings through automatic 401K contributions. Make your financial life low maintenance by consolidating to as few financial accounts as you can. Have a bias towards a minimal portfolio, only adding an asset class to your mix when you really feel it adds value, not just to generically “diversify” further. Automate all your bill paying. Minimize the number of credit cards you have. If you budget, take advantage of some of the tools like Mint to do it easily, versus a more time-consuming manual method. And so on. If you chip away at this, pretty soon, you will have your personal accounts set up in a way that requires much less ongoing maintenance compared to someone who is less intentional.
The list of ways you can “waste” your time is endless when you stop and think about it. And it includes activities you need to maintain as much as material things. Social obligations that you don’t really want. Hobbies that become habit but don’t really bring you as much joy anymore. Activities that everyone around you does so you end up doing them too without much reflection that you have choices. Friends or family members that drain your time and energy. For every minute you spend on these low (or negative) value activities, you are taking a minute away from something great you could ADD to your life that is new and better. If you’re not careful and deliberate in how you design your lifestyle, you can end up living out of alignment with your values and be less happy than you could be.
If you avoid or consciously design for low maintenance the many things in modern life that aren’t highly valuable to you personally, you can spend your time on the things you said you were saving money for in the first place. And you can have that time now, not just in some future FIRE state.
What about some counter examples – where complexity and maintenance are worth it?
Just like in minimizing the commitment to things you don’t personally value, your choice of where to invest your time is also very personal. There is no right or wrong answer as long at it’s a conscious choice.
As a personal example, I really like to heat with wood. This is not a low maintenance activity. It takes a lot of time to cut/collect wood, split it, season it, haul it around, start fires, and clean the ash. For many people, they would rather do other things. But I enjoy the entire process. I’m in a state of flow when I’m splitting wood by hand. And I’m certainly not thinking about other things when I’m chainsawing…..I’m fully focused on the task knowing how dangerous it is. In my last house, I installed a nice modern wood insert and used it on winter weekends when I had the time. I miss it and am looking forward once again owning an efficient wood stove in the future.
Pets are a great example too. They cost money and require a ton of maintenance. But most pet owners would tell you that it’s completely worth it. I’ve always been an avid dog lover but with work and young kids, we are sans dog and okay with it at this point (surprisingly). But I’m sure that someday when we have more time available, having a dog again will be something that we really want. But right now, it would not be fair to myself, my family, or a dog to make this type of time committent.
Of course, kids are the ultimate example. A massive committment in time and other resources but also one that many will tell you is the most rewarding part of their life. Again, it’s a very personal decision with no right or wrong answer as long as you are conscious about it. But if you become a parent and don’t truly want the commitment that comes with raising kids, it’s not a good situation for anyone. And on the other end, if for example you focused too much on work and never nurtured a relationship that led to a family, despite really wanting one at some point, then you will have regrets later in life. Again there is no right or wrong answer but you do owe it to yourself and those around you to be introspective and make the best choice for yourself on a huge commitment like this.
Even more than the list of negative time-consuming possibilities, the list of positive things is also endless when you ponder it. In fact, in the amazing world we live in today, there are more great things you could add into your life than has ever existed. Nor have they been so accessible to so many. The options are wonderful and numerous if you take a bit of time and effort to go seeking. With so many amazing possibilities, there is no excuse for wasting your time on things that don’t bring you happiness. Remember that your life is just a series of moments strung together. Work to make those moments happier and happier as you live your life by choosing to “spend” those moments wisely.
I’ll conclude that this is a relatively new focus area for me and that I am very far from perfection here but the progress I have made has made me happier. I’m interested in learning and exploring more about how we all can better use our time to be happier.
So what about you? Any examples or wisdom to share for treating your time as preciously as your money?