In modern American culture, we frequently treat money not only as the bottom line for financial accounting purposes but as some sort of ultimate measure or purpose. We take for granted that businesses exist to make money (rather than, say, to deliver goods and services that make life better). We barely blink at the notion that people go to work each day to make money (rather than, say, to improve themselves or strengthen their communities). And we tend to accept that the health of our society can be gauged by how much money we’re collectively making—by bull markets and increasing GDP rather than, say, composite levels of health, education, or happiness.
Meanwhile, popular culture tells us that “every man has his price” and that “money makes the world go ‘round.” It even insists that “time is money.”
As it’s normally used, the latter phrase implies that the value of time stems from the fact that you can use it to make more money. But it’s actually closer to the truth, and a lot more conducive to long-term sanity, to say something almost opposite: The value of money stems from the fact that you can use it to make more time—or at least to make more of time.
Think about it. Money has no intrinsic value. Its value comes from the fact that you can exchange it for something else—for food or drink or entertainment or any of the myriad needs and wants you might imagine.
In fact, as anyone who’s ever been responsible for managing multiple needs and desires on a limited budget can tell you, the real cost of anything is best measured not in dollars and cents per se but in what else or what more those dollars and cents could do if you didn’t spend them. In real-life monetary exchanges, the money is basically a placeholder for that what else or what more: the real cost is what you can no longer do once your money is gone.
Of course, you can always choose to save your money rather than spend it (assuming you have enough to begin with). But what’s the point of saving it now if not to spend it later? Saving money is smart precisely because it creates a bulwark against future neediness. But it only makes sense if you actually have a future.
And that’s the crucial point here: Money’s value stems from its ability to buy you something else. Time’s value is intrinsic. If you run out of money, you can spend your time to make more of it. If you run out of time–really run out of time–then nothing else matters.
As many other writers have noted, no one gets to the end of life and says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” But people do get to the end of life and say they wish they had spent more time with loved ones, more time traveling or pursuing their favorite hobbies, and–importantly–less time worrying about what other people think of them.
The upshot of this is that the asset we should all be seeking to maximize isn’t money; it’s time. More specifically, it’s quality time—time spent doing what nourishes and fulfills us. Such time is what we should strive to avoid wasting. It’s what we should seek to understand fully and use most wisely. It’s what each of us should treat as our own bottom line.
Rather than asking ourselves, “how much money will this cost me?” we should ask, “how much quality time will this take (or give) me?” Or “how much quality will this add to my time?” Rather than going to work each day to make money, we should go either because the work itself is fulfilling or because it provides us with the money–and, crucially, leaves us the time–to fulfill ourselves otherwise. Rather than measuring success by our bank accounts, we should measure it by the overall quality of our time.
None of this is to say anything against money per se—much less against working hard, earning, and saving. Working hard, earning, and saving all are virtues. And money is a necessary means for surviving and thriving in our world, not to mention a crucial tool for facilitating all sorts of human interactions. If you decide you want to make a lot of money to support the life you want to lead or the goals you want to achieve, more power to you. Just make sure the money serves the life and not vice versa. Money is a means, not an end in itself. And mistaking it for the latter is a horrible waste of time, the real bottom line.