When Time is More Valuable than Money

The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2018, The New York Times Company).

Many of us are busy at work, but even at home, there is a lot of work to do. Meal preparation, cleaning, yard work, home maintenance and child care consume considerable time for the typical American.

Much of it isn’t fun, contributing to friction in relationships and taking time away from more pleasant activities that increase happiness. Instead of bickering over who will do the vacuuming, would family life be better if we just outsourced the job?

One survey found that 25 percent of people who were divorced named “disagreements about housework” as the top reason for getting a divorce.

In a working paper that cited that survey, scholars at the Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia examined whether buying timesaving services could improve relationships. The study, which involved over 3,000 people in committed relationships across a variety of tests, revealed that those who spent more money on timesaving services were more satisfied with their relationships, in part because they spent more quality time with their partners.

This is, admittedly, a first-world issue. Some don’t have the luxury of paying others to cook for them (eating at a restaurant counts here), tend to their yards or clean their homes. But sharing apps like TaskRabbit are making it easier for more people to find less expensive help for routine chores.

Perhaps this could do wonders for some relationships.

According to the working paper, timesaving purchases help protect couples from the negative impact of typical and uncontrollable relationship stressors, like unexpected pressure at work.

Results like these may be unsurprising. Time-related stress — having too little time to relax — is associated with reduced feelings of well-being and increased depression. Stress doesn’t just affect our mood; it can also harm our health.

Using some of our income to buy more time for leisure can improve well-being, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Outsourcing at least a few tasks each month — about $100 to $200 worth — can increase life satisfaction.

That finding came from surveys of over 6,000 people in the United States, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands. Among American workers, half had spent money to buy time, largely by relieving themselves of cooking, shopping and home maintenance tasks.

The results held even after controlling for income, so it doesn’t seem as if buying time is merely an indicator of being wealthier, which may also increase satisfaction. In fact, the researchers found a stronger relationship between satisfaction and buying time among lower-income groups.

But just to be sure that buying time tends to cause greater life satisfaction, the researchers conducted a randomized experiment. Participants in the trial were given $40 on each of two consecutive weekends. On one of those weekends, they were randomly assigned to spend the money on something that would save them time (like going out to eat instead of cooking). On the other weekend, they could make only a material purchase that would not save time (like buying a new shirt).

“When people spent the $40 to save time, they reported being in a more positive mood and feeling less stressed,” said Ashley Whillans, lead author of both the National Academy of Sciences study and the working paper about couples, and an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. “But it is important to note that even if spending a little to buy time increases well-being, spending a lot may not.”

In other words, you can also overdo it. Ms. Whillans and colleagues found that spending $100 to $200 per month on timesaving services maximized satisfaction, but spending more started to reduce it.

This could be because outsourcing may cause you to feel as if you can’t do anything yourself. Or perhaps it’s because of the challenges of managing others. Or maybe when you buy so many services, you’re bound to feel some aren’t done well and regret having not saved the money.

In a finding from other work by Ms. Whillans, outsourcing unpleasant tasks may also cause some people to feel guilty, because they’re transferring the unpleasantness to someone else.

Research on this topic may also be useful to companies. During the 2013-2014 academic year, Stanford University School of Medicine offered timesaving vouchers to doctors as rewards for certain types of work.

Doctors who filled in for colleagues, engaged in mentorship and served on committees earned vouchers that could be redeemed for home services (like housecleaning or laundry) or work tasks (like manuscript editing or website design). A recently published study of the program found that it increased perceptions of wellness and satisfaction, and increased productivity.

Stanford could have rewarded employees with cash bonuses instead of timesaving vouchers. But as Ms. Whillans’s study suggests, people may actually be happier by saving more time. In addition, employees who feel more supported by their employers perform better and quit less.

This means that small contributions to this trade-off — saving time over money — may have benefits for employers as well as individuals. It may even save some marriages.


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