Buying time, buying happiness

September 14, 2017

I have a secret to confess. Ever since my husband and I got married, we have been big fans of outsourcing jobs that we both dislike or that someone else can do better. As a result, we have paid for house cleaning, lawn mowing, snow removal and ordered our share of pizzas and other take-out meals. This strategy has minimized domestic friction and freed up time to spend with our growing family.

It now appears that according to recent research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAC) that we were on to something. Using large, diverse samples from the United States, Canada, Denmark, and The Netherlands (over 6,200 people), the study reveals that that individuals who spend money on time-saving services report greater life satisfaction.  Furthermore, working adults say they are happier after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on buying material goods. Together, these results suggest that using money to buy time can protect people from the detrimental effects of time pressure on life satisfaction.

In one component of the study, 60 working adults from Vancouver were recruited to spend two payments of $40 on two consecutive weekends. On one weekend, participants were randomly assigned to spend $40 on a purchase that would save them time. On the other weekend, to control for the experience of receiving and spending a windfall, participants were assigned to spend $40 on a material purchase.

After making each purchase, participants received a phone call at 5:00 PM and reported their feelings of positive effect, negative effect, and time stress on that day. People who made a time-saving purchase reported greater end of day positive effect. Study findings also suggest that using money to buy time may not only reduce feelings of time pressure on a given day, but outsourcing can provide a cumulative benefit by serving as a buffer against the deleterious effects of time pressure on overall life satisfaction.

The authors found no consistent evidence that the benefits of buying time are limited to relatively wealthy people. If anything, within the U.S. sample they observed a stronger relationship between buying time and life satisfaction among less affluent individuals. Nevertheless, they acknowledge that their sample included relatively few people at the lowest rungs of the income spectrum who are struggling to meet their basic needs.

Interestingly, despite the potential benefits of outsourcing many respondents allocated no discretionary income to buying time, even when they could afford it: i.e., just under half of the 818 millionaires surveyed spent no money outsourcing disliked tasks. We can only guess whether the inherent frugality of the very affluent is a critical factor contributing to their financial success!

Furthermore, the study suggests that low rates of “buying time to increase satisfaction” among some study participants may be a function of gender and culture with women in some cultures feeling obligated to complete household tasks themselves and working “a second shift” at home even when they can afford someone to help.

All of us are faced with multiple time vs. money decisions every day. For example:

Take the toll road and get home faster or not?
Buy a Halloween costume for your child or make one?
Purchase a dryer or hang the laundry outside to dry?
Pay a babysitter or watch a movie on Netflix?
Buy a car or take the bus?

So the next time you update your budget, when you budget for family essentials, debt repayment and retirement savings, think about whether spending some money to save time is an affordable priority. The PNAC study definitely validates our family’s experience that buying time is one way to reduce stress and promote family harmony!

Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.
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