Tiny Tuesday: Time is Money (But Not the Usual Way)

One says to me, “I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.” But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages. I remember when wages were sixty cents a day for laborers on this very road. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; I have travelled at that rate by the week together. You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you; and as for seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should have to cut your acquaintance altogether.
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

We need money to survive. We’re preconditioned to spend part of our lives working for profit and the rest of our lives, you know, living. Rarely does it occur to anyone that the time spent earning money ought to count against the time saved spending it.

Thoreau, in his sometimes insufferable way, presents his audience with a new way to evaluate money and time. Here the hypothetical reader spends hours working to earn a fare, while Thoreau spends it going for a walk. I don’t intend to discount the rewards that work itself can bring (like the satisfaction of helping somebody else or otherwise contributing to the betterment of the world), but it’s clear to this reader that Thoreau had the better day.

The same logic extends to other “necessary” expenses. Driving a gasoline-powered car costs ten to twenty cents a mile, plus wear and tear. Driving an electric car is cheaper, but walking or cycling is practically free. You can buy new clothes to replace your worn garments, or you can learn to sew. You can buy eggs from the supermarket each week, or you can raise chickens.

And in keeping with the theme of this blog: you can spend six figures on a new house, or you can take the years you’d need to earn that kind of money and instead build the house yourself. I’m not saying one option is better than the other, just that you should consider the value of time when you compare them. I think Thoreau would approve of that.

Americans work some of the longest hours in the world, and an American politician recently suggested we need to work even longer. I find this trend appalling. (The economists reading this must hate me… but seriously, why is it so important for America to have the world’s most powerful economy?) Money buys security, but more money does not buy happiness. Revalue the time outside your job. You might find, like Thoreau, that you can spend less (and earn less) without degrading your quality of life; indeed, you may enhance it.

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