Drowning in Dreams of Leisure

Did you know that, according to the authors of Happy Moneyafter the home and the expensive new car(s), the number one purchase for the overworked is an inground pool? 

It’s because the pool is the ultimate metaphor—the one true symbol of having it all, as depicted by Clark Griswold's daydream of having a pool in his backyard in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation movie (1989).

We can’t blame people for making this type of investment. We do it all the time in our own way. We buy stuff that represents our hopes and dreams. We have possessions that we just know we’ll use some day…when we make time for it that is. For some, it’s golf clubs, for others, it’s a surf board, for others still it’s a boat.

These are symbols of the leisure class…what you can finally do when you’ve been a good boy or girl and you’ve accumulated enough societal points via money or rank to allow yourself the time to enjoy it. 

Here’s the problem: We never do. The premise of “I’ll have time when...” never materializes, despite the fact that the symbols already have.

Americans report feeling more pressed for time than in earlier decades. Rising incomes over the past decades have made time relatively more valuable.
— p. 58, Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton

It’s because we’re taught that time is money. We need to continuously aspire to build and maintain a perfect life. We need to delay enjoyment until some unspecified future date when, finally, we will have arrived.

And we’re doomed to fail. The perfect life is an unattainable ideal when we attempt to achieve it with stuff. A better home, car, pool, boat…will never make life perfect. But how we spend our time can.

The Truth: Money is Time

‘Remember that time is money. He that can earn 10 shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day…has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings.’ —Benjamin Franklin.
Research shows that embracing Franklin’s view of time can undermine happiness. When people see time as money, they find it difficult to reap joy from the unpaid pleasures of daily life.
— p. 76, Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton

That’s why we need to change that awful statement of Benjamin Franklin’s “time is money” to “money is time”. We need to guard our time like hawks and measure the time value of everything we choose to spend money on*:

  • Is a 2-week luxury vacation for two really worth 1.7 months of work?
  • Is that in-ground pool worth over 5 months of work (not counting ongoing maintenance)?
  • Is that car worth 10 months of work?
  • How about 3+ years of work dedicated to that extra 1,000 square feet of living space, let alone what it'll be filled with?

What good is spending so much time working for money to buy the “good things” in life when we don’t get to enjoy what we bought with that hard-earned money? 

The Solution? Well-enjoyed Stuff

The adage "less is more" is truer than we think. We need to buy less stuff by buying the right stuff and using the heck out of it. 

Want a boat? No problem. That means you’ve decided you want to live on it or spend your weekends enjoying it based on the activities you’ve decided it allows you to enjoy: swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, water skiing, dumping bodies à la Dexter (kidding, just checking if you’re still paying attention), commuting, travelling the globe and/or living aboard.

By encouraging people to buy houses, the US government implicitly encourages people to buy stuff.
— p. 144, Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton
Rather than taking a higher-paying job farther from home and using the extra money to buy a nice car, most people would be better off sticking with a job closer to home, even if it pays less. To offset the happiness costs of going from no commute to a 22-minute commute, the average person would need to see their income rise by over 1/3—and that’s just to break even. Rather than bugging the boss for a raise, you could get a similar happiness boost, research shows, by moving closer to work.
— p. 65, Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton

Want a bigger home? No problem. That means you’ve decided you want to telecommute full time, have a bigger family, have a home business, entertain ad nauseam or find another use for the leftover space that isn’t tied to impressing strangers or to buying and storing more useless stuff.

Want a bigger car? No problem. That means you’re planning on chauferring a whole lot of people a whole lot of places or hauling a whole lot of stuff much of the time. And it’s a 4-wheel drive offroad type? Great! That means tons of offroading adventures in your future. Start planning those vacation days now. If that bigger, badder car is just to make your commute more “comfortable”, it’s a hell of a price to pay (sticker price, gas consumption, maintenance).


Want a pool? No problem. That means you want to spend your weekends (and days off) in it, cleaning it (or paying with extra hours for someone else to do it), organizing pool parties for kids and adults alike, organizing pool-side BBQs.

Because the lens of imagination focuses on the foreground of pool ownership while blurring the background details, we suggest a simple exercise before making a major purchase: Think about Tuesday. Take the time to consider what you’ll be doing from morning to night this coming Tuesday. How will the purchase affect you on Tuesday? This simple exercise—thinking about time use on a specific day—helps us make less biased predictions about how much any one thing will influence our happiness.
— p. 73-4, Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton

Reclaiming Time Spent on Useless Stuff

Exchanging time for stuff seems ridiculous when we look at all the stuff we have in our homes that sits unused. What a waste of time and effort! We live surrounded by mountains of wasted effort. So much of our stuff is useless—artifacts of our desires and wishes for a different life.

It’s time to reclaim it. It’s time to make decisions about how we are realistically going to  spend your time and to put our money where the truth is. 

Reclaim Your Time!

  1. Make a list of how you really look on paper (work and non-work activities). Not the way you want it to look, but the way it looks today.
  2. Next to these activities, add the stuff that allows you to do these things.
  3. If you feel something is missing, decide what you'll displace to make room for it and be realistic about whether or not you'll really do it.
  4. Sell or give away what doesn’t regularly help you do what you do and make use of the extra space and money to support how you really do spend you time.
  5. If you have too much space or too much car, downsize.**

Repeat the above steps anytime your lifestyle changes in any significant way because stuff is meant to help you live your life today, not to crowd your space and attention as relics of the past.

Note: #4 is HUGE. I get that. Go with the biggest items first (volume or cost). The feeling you get when you unburden yourself from the obligation you feel creates momentum that helps us move on to smaller items. Just start with one thing and, before you know it, the list of discarded items could grow into the hundreds.

What are you waiting for? Take the plunge. The water’s fine.

*Assumes $20/hr after tax. Does not include financing charges typically associated with these purchases, which will increase the time cost by a factor of 25% to 100%.

** According to Happy Money, these do not add to your potential happiness in any meaningful way but represent a disproportionate amount of your yearly budget.

Image credit/copyright: graur codrin/freedigitalphotos.net

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