This cartoon from xkcd made me think about how we measure the value of time.
I have never totally bought the argument that we should assign to time the same hourly rate that we get for working. Suppose someone gets paid $50,000 per year. That works out roughly to $25 per hour of work, allowing for a 40-hour workweek and two weeks off for vacation. Does that mean that each minute of our time is worth about 42 cents?
The only time that argument made sense to me was a brief period when I was working as a consultant and actually charging by the hour. During that period, I felt really guilty when I was just goofing off and not doing anything because I could have been working and earning money instead. That ever-present feeling of guilt for not working became oppressive after some time. I could never quite find the right balance. It was a big relief to stop doing consulting as my primary source of income.
Some people use the ‘time equals money’ argument to say that it is not worth spending too much time to make small savings here and there. But the catch is that the time we save by not doing something (like going to a more distant store to buy something on sale) is not used to actually earn money. That time is just spent on other non-earning activities. So the real contrast is how we compare the relative value of two competing non-earning activities.
Most of us work on a more intuitive sense of how much our time and effort is worth. When we were poor graduate students, we spent a lot of time cutting coupons for groceries and everyday items and carefully shopping to get the most for our limited money. I don’t do so anymore because at my stage in life, I think that my time is better spent on other things. But I am willing to spend quite a lot of time researching a major purchase like a computer or TV or car or house to try and save money. I know people who agonize over small items and yet will impulsively make big purchases.
So clearly in my mind there is some internal measuring device that tells me how much my time is worth but I am not able to quantify it in any way. This internal device may be also quite unreliable and overwhelmed by other emotional factors.