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The Time/Money Trade-Off

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Have you ever had a moment when a massive realization hits you suddenly and forcefully? These rare but impactful realizations can literally stop you in your tracks. I have found myself looking up from whatever it is I’m doing and staring at the wall considering this newly revealed absolute truth.

I’ve had two big money-related realizations hit me in my adult life. One was the idea that money can give me freedom – saving and investing my money would give me options. This struck me at around the age of 40. The second realization happened a few years earlier and it was this: time and money are almost perfectly negatively correlated. More time means less money and less time means more money.

The internal tug-of-war

Almost everyone feels this internal tug-of-war. On one side of the line is your desire to have more time to be with your partner or children, play guitar, exercise, take courses, or just relax. On the other side is the pull of building a career, finding personal fulfillment through work, earning enough or more money, and ensuring you can continue on your career path after your kids have grown up.

When I was in my “peak busy years” of career-building and raising two small children I was struck full-force with the time/money trade-off. Until that point in my life, time hadn’t been so precious; I had lots of it. But when I went back to work after having my second child, time suddenly became my most precious commodity. Free time was no longer a thing. Nearly every waking hour was taken up either by work or by looking after my kids and my home.*

This is a common experience. Somewhere in our 30s and 40s we reach a state of “peakness”. We have the energy and ability to do all kinds of things. We’ve learned the hard lessons of youth, generally figured out how to be an adult, and we know what we want. We also see that life and health isn’t to be taken for granted. It’s also usually the time when we have the most opportunities at work, whether that be building a career, taking on more work, or growing our business. For some this coincides with owning a house, having kids, experiencing challenges in marriage, and caring for parents. Stress, fatigue, and worry live side-by-side with fulfillment, joy, and enthusiasm. The time/money tug-of-war is in full force.

Buying more time

The time/money trade-off presents two kinds of conundrums: one involves the decisions about spending money to gain time and the second is the bigger decision about working less to have more time for other things.

How does this relate to financial planning? Finding your optimal time/money trade-off that will improve your happiness requires conscious thought and planning around money. What can you afford? What sacrifices will you make? What impact will your choices have on your financial future?

Like so many things in financial planning, there is no hard and fast answer to the time/money trade-off. Every person’s combination of circumstances, desires and goals is unique. Financial planning can help you decide what you can afford and how your current spending choices affect your ability to save for the future. This allows you to make decisions you feel good about.

The smaller decisions – how to spend money to have more time – are easier. This includes things like buying prepared meals and eating out, hiring a house cleaner, and paying someone to mow your lawn. To decide how much to spend on these time-saving services, you need to know what you can afford. Instead of spending thoughtlessly or limiting your spending out of fear, gather the facts. How much does your life cost? How much are you bringing in after all of your deductions? How much do you want to save for retirement, a house, and your kids’ education? Then you can make the spending decisions with confidence and prioritize which time-saving services you want to use.

Creating more time

The bigger decision has to do with your choices about work such as quitting your job, taking a leave of absence, working part-time, or taking a less demanding position. For many people, taking the foot off the work gas pedal means sacrificing future opportunities. It can be hard to re-enter the workforce after an extended break and pick up where you left off. And since we are at our peak in mid-life, it’s generally the time when we do our best work.

To address this big decision, give it the consideration it needs. Set aside time to really think about it. Write your thoughts down on paper. List your options and the consequences of each. Work out the financial implications. Then make a conscious and mindful decision and determine what you need to do to make it work. If you keep working, what support do you need? If you leave, what do you need to cut down on to afford it? If you downgrade your position, how will you continue to feel fulfilled?

If you’re feeling the time/money tug-of-war and it’s wearing you down, don’t gloss over it. Don’t let life lead you by the collar. Take control and make conscious, well thought out choices. By dedicating time to the problem, likely you can find some solutions that will make you happier and allow you to soak up the joy of this time of your life.


*Parents face many difficult choices, and the career/family balance might be the biggest one. It’s an unfortunate reality is that for most people having children usually happens at the same time as you are building a career or a business. When your children are most needy of your time, your job requires the most effort and time. My choice was to reduce my work hours to 80%, working a 9-4 day so I could pick my kids up from daycare earlier and have a less stressful evening. I did this for five years. Did it impact my career? Yes. Did I earn less money? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely.

Photo credit: Matthew Schwartz, Unsplash


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