Spend Money Where You Spend the Most Time

To put it simply, the more hours you spend on an activity, the more value you’ll get from spending money on ways to improve it. That’s not to say that temporary things are bad. Getting a massage might only take an hour and last the day, but it’s still a nice treat every once in a while. You just don’t get much mileage out of it.

Math is all well and good in principle, but how do you make this work in practice? The first step is to find the areas of your life where you spend your time. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor offer some useful, if somewhat obvious hints on where to start. According to the data, Americans spend most of their time in three key areas: work, sleep, and leisure, in that order. Work takes up an average of eight and a half to nine hours per day, sleep just under eight hours, and leisure or sports activities a comparatively meager three hours per day.

Since it takes up most of your time, let’s look at work. If you’re in a career where you sit at a desk all day, investing in a supportive chair or a standing desk can improve your comfort. On the other hand, if you work in retail, service industries, or other jobs where you’re on your feet all day, then your money might be better spent on a comfortable pair of shoes.

The next biggest chunk of your time is sleep. Getting a really good mattress can be expensive, but even a comfortable pillow can help you get more restful sleep at night, and wake up with less of a pain in the neck. If you’re the kind of person who can’t fall asleep in total silence, then a white noise machine could be worthwhile. At first glance, it might seem silly to spend $40 on a machine that does the same thing a free app can do, but over the course of a year, the machine costs less than a penny and a half per hour you use it. From that perspective, either option is cost-effective, so you can choose either one based on whatever you like best.

Then there’s your leisure time. At three hours of the average person’s day, it’s not quite as time-consuming as work or sleep, and yet you might spend more time on it than other, more “responsible” areas of your life like cleaning or cooking (which the Labor Department says take up about an hour of the average person’s day each). Counterintuitively, that means spending $100 on an InstantPot for the kitchen can be less cost-effective than spending $200 on a comfy recliner.

If being advised to buy cozy chairs instead of cooking equipment and video games instead of office chairs sounds too-good-to-be-true at best and irresponsible at worst, that’s because this shouldn’t be the only factor in your decision making. You don’t buy equipment for the kitchen because of the number of hours you spend cooking. You do it because it makes it easier to make food. Which, as it happens, is something you have to do. You don’t need to play video games, but you do have to eat.

The relationship between your money and your time also isn’t that straightforward.

Say you spend three hours a night playing games or watching TV, but only spend an hour or two a week vacuuming your house. According to everything we’ve said so far, you should spend your money on your leisurely hobbies, right? However, if you spend money on a robot vacuum, then you can reduce the amount of time that you spend vacuuming to almost zero.