We’re Getting Further Away

Everyone wants to save a buck. And to get a cheaper deal, many people will sacrifice a much more valuable resource than money: time. Cities expand outwards and people choose to live in the suburbs, where rent or mortgages are cheaper. But they give back these savings in two ways. First, their commute lengthens. Now, they’re spending less time with their families, less time on leisure, less time on cooking meals, and more time in the car. Second, the car ride isn’t free either. Increased commute times raise the price of insurance, gas and maintenance — and make it necessary to buy cars more frequently. So, congratulations, you’ve saved on rent so you can pay more to Chevron.

Oddly enough, I realized this phenomenon not as a 9-5 worker bee but as a stay-at-home freelancer. I have found myself on the phone for hours trying to rectify $20 billing errors that would have been cheaper to ignore. I can never get back the time I spent on hold; unlike money, my remaining time is finite and always shrinking. Plus, I would have more than made up for the losses by working during those hours.

Retailers with liberal return policies recognize the value of time. Costco and Amazon let customers send things back because, on the whole, it’s cheaper to accept returns than spend time arguing over them. Why don’t individuals run a similar cost analysis of every action? In our desire to not be cheated or overspend, we end up cheating ourselves and overspending.