The True Value of Money

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“Wait, why are you taking a cab again when the subway’s right there?”

My friend shrugs. “It’s faster. Time is money, right?”


OK, let me just stop right here. People LOVE throwing around the phrase “Time is money,” usually right before they make a stupid wasteful purchase because they mistakenly believe that phrase is something that gives them an excuse to spend on convenience. If a $20 cab ride saves me an hour on the subway, well my time is obviously worth $20, so go for it!

But that’s not what “Time is money” means.

Unless your last name is Kardashian, we all have to work for our money. A certain number of dollars per hour. We trade time for money when we earn it. And the natural thing to do is say “Well, I earn more than $20 an hour, so saving an hour by spending $20 totally makes sense, right?”

Nope. Here’s how the math actually works.


Let’s say your typical cab ride across town is $20 per trip instead of $3 by subway, so you’re spending $17 each time. But in reality, by taking at least 2 rides a day, every day over the year, you’re actually spending $17 x 2 x 365 = $12,410!

In order to generate $12,410 a year in passive income, that would require a portfolio of $12,410 x 25 = $310,250! JUST to cover your daily cab ride habit!

Now translate that back to time. If you earn $20 an hour, that would require you to work $310,250 / $20 = 15, 512.5 hours. 15 thousand hours, or 1939 days (assuming 8-hour shifts), or 64 months, or 5.4 YEARS!

Is that cab ride worth 5.4 years of your life?


That’s why “Time is money” is actually a very true statement, but not in the way you’re thinking. If everyone saw money as the amount of time required to EARN it, all of a sudden it doesn’t seem like such a great deal to “buy convenience.”

And yet people spend money on convenience all the time. Why is this?

Well two reasons:


Ah, the good ol’ Bank of Mom and Dad. The Bank that’s never closed, and always willing to look the other way for their special snowflake.

Now don’t get me wrong. Hand-outs sound GREAT, on paper. Time might be money, but it’s not YOUR time, so screw it! Someone ELSE has put in the hours to earn that money, but to you it’s just a windfall of cash that you didn’t have to spend a second toiling away at a job to earn.

And this leads to…shall we say…predictable spending patterns.

Take my friend, Tiffany, for example.

Having grown up rich (*shakes fist in fury*), her parents paid her tuition and living costs. How special. What a snowflake. So of course, when it came time to pick a program, her decision process was…questionable at best. I think a dartboard might have been involved.

And surprise surprise, she’s since switched programs twice already and has been in school for 6 years with many more to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time she graduates, they’ll have paid for 3 useless degrees over a friggin’ decade, none of which will likely get her a job. Because THAT is what happens when you don’t have any skin in the game. Because she didn’t have to shell out $150,000 for the 3 degrees, she didn’t have to work YEARS to save up that money. It’s just funny money to her, so she spent it like it was funny money. Makes sense.

Another friend, Karen, still takes hand-outs from her parents to buy shoes and purses even though she’s over 30. I tried to count how many $800 shoes or $3000 bags she has in her condo and I stopped once I hit double digits because I was ready to barf. Wanderer and I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation one night over some bowls of ramen and concluded that she could snort half a gram of cocaine, EVERY SINGLE NIGHT for a year and STILL spend less money than her current shoes-and-bags habit.

That, in case it wasn’t glaringly obvious, is a LOT of Fucking Shoes and Bags.

But because her parents pay for these things, it’s not her money, so spend away, right?

But maybe you aren’t a rich kid, or were born to rich parents. Well, you’re in luck(?) because there’s still another way to screw yourself over when it comes to spending. And that way is…


Studies have shown that by using plastic instead of cash, our brain chemistry actually changes over time. When you pull out money you had to EARN to buy something, the pain receptors in your brain start flashing. It somehow remembers the amount of hours you had to work to earn that physical cash, so you viscerally wince as you part with it thinking about all that toiling those slips of paper entailed. But when you swipe a credit card, that pain is masked. It seems like you’re getting free money—someone else’s money—so WOOOO!

And I may have started talking about credit card debt, but the REAL elephant in the room is mortgages.

The current low interest environment tricks us all into believe that we’re getting money for free and “building equity” by going deep into debt to buy houses we can’t afford. But in reality, unless we actually have the money to cover that debt right away, we are someone else’s bitch—namely the bank’s. They can call the loan at any time or raise the cost of borrowing as interest rates go up.

But it reality, you’re actually just “renting other peoples’ money” (as The GodFather JLCollins likes to say). Not only is that NOT free, you’re actually trapping “Future You” for years running the rat race. This is why debt is a form of modern slavery. By selling us the illusion of buying a life we can’t afford, debt tricks us into spending WAY more money than we would ever imagine spending.


You know how many of my friends are in over $1M of mortgage debt to buy real estate? Almost all of them.

And somehow, they’re all just OK with it. No alarm bells are ringing. Why? It’s not their money. Those houses were bought with debt, so they didn’t bat an eye spending six or seven figures on four walls, a roof, and an unfinished basement.

But you know what? A million dollars is a LOT of freaking money! We saved and invested for a decade to build our portfolio, and would we ever blow it all on a house? Hell NO! Because that million dollars isn’t just money some banker in a nice suit handed to us. That million dollars is a DECADE of woman-hours toiling away at a hateful job, and represents the ability to be Canada’s youngest retiree and never having to work again.

I ain’t trading those cards for a stupid, overpriced house.

But if you’re buying the house with the bank’s money, then somehow spending that amount is TOTALLY normal. And the only one who gets hurt is your future self. But who cares about THAT idiot? Live in the present! #YOLO!

Breaking Out

What do these two scenarios have in common? They break the link between time and money.

If money is handed to you, or if that money is financed by debt (either credit card or mortgages), that money becomes funny money. It’s not linked to time, so you have no intrinsic sense of how much it’s worth. And that’s what makes people go nuts with it buying thousand dollar bags and million dollar condos.

Luckily, growing up poor I’ve never run into these problems. And “Luckily” is in quotes because it was no picnic. If I wanted something, there were no hand-outs. Nothing for the special snowflake. Because I wasn’t special, I couldn’t afford to be a snowflake, and quite frankly my parents had nothing to give me. I had to earn it myself or just go without. A nice pair of shoes meant working in a restaurant all summer. A new bag meant selling my soul. And having my own car? BWAHAHAHA *snort* yeaaaaaaah. Not gonna happen.

I was also “lucky” because I grew up without access to debt. When we first came to Canada, it was hard for us to get a loan because we didn’t have any credit history. And not only that, having grown up in China, the idea of spending money you haven’t earned was completely foreign to us. And so my parents drilled into my young brain that debt is bad and only losers who can’t manage their finances need debt. That’s why I didn’t get a credit card until after I graduated from university.

But far from being bitter over my lot in life, I just sat and watched with amusement as everyone around me goes nuts with debt, spending money they don’t have like it was going out of style.

And throughout it all, I’ve concluded one thing: Once you lose the link between time and money, you start making very stupid decisions about money.

That’s why every time we do a Reader Case, we never end it by saying “if you did this, you would have THIS much money instead of THAT much money.” Because money is an abstract concept that people have trouble understanding. If you don’t connect to anything real, money is just a number in a spreadsheet.

But if you connect it to time? Everyone understands that. “If you buy this house, you will have to work for 28 years MORE!”

Now people get it. They think “Hmmmmm. 28 years is a long time. Is this house worth that much of my adult life?”

So that’s the true value of Money.


Time spent in the rat race. You put in the time to earn it, but instead of spending it all and forcing your future-self to toil in a hateful job to continue supporting your lifestyle, you use that money to buy your time back. That’s why FIRE means.

And that’s how Time truly is Money.

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50 thoughts on “The True Value of Money”

  1. Hi Firecracker,

    I totally agree with you. It’s only through hard work that one will start to appreciate the true value of money. I am one of such example and come from an ordinary family without silver spoon to start with. I think that it is through the years of hard work and grilling on the workplaces and I start to appreciate the true of FIRE.

    I believe that such humble background build one’s character and will make one feel more empowered and decisive in whatever things one need to do. It is the circumstance which will shape the characteristic of one and will benefit in long term.


    1. Kudos, Ben! Not being born with a silver spoon makes you appreciate the real value of money through hard work. Looks like you understand and appreciate this concept because you lived through it.

  2. “… you use that money to buy your time back…”

    That’s an excellent way to put it! I got kinda like an ‘eureka’ moment after I read it 🙂

    I did get my first credit card while at university (the marketing machine was working in overdrive mode in the developed world).
    Somehow I didn’t get the urge to spend, except for a time that I used it to buy a train ticket.

    1. I think one advantage of being in university (outside of the trying to survive on instant noodles and ketchup packets) is that everyone is a poor student, so naturally we’re not all busy trying to keep up with the Joneses. I think that’s why my peers weren’t maxing out their credit cards…unlike now.

      I’m glad you didn’t get the urge to spend in university. I think credit cards are great for convenience but horrible for people’s finances.

  3. Great stuff as always, Kristy. I completely agree that, most of the time, people are way too quick to buy time. There are some times when it makes sense: i.e. – when the payout is tiny for the amount of time you spend (say, scouring through coupons, or foraging for food, or, say, felling trees that you will dry out and turn into board lumber, that you will then turn into furniture that you could simply buy in Craigslist). A key time to buy time back is when it increases happiness, especially by removing tasks that clearly lower your happiness:

    The main flaw in the “buying time” argument, though, is that people rarely are in situations where they can actually increase time by working more. If you’re a business owner or contractor, by all means, go earn more rather than flipping through the Sunday paper looking for coupons. If you’re a salaried employee, then the real comparison is whether you’d simply like to buy the time, not because you’re earning more, but because that’s the true value you put on getting more free time. While it’s costly, and rare that it’s a smart decision, it can be valid sometimes.

    1. “A key time to buy time back is when it increases happiness.”

      Exactly. And you have good point about business owners. They can use the time they save to grow the business and earn more, but a salaried employee’s earnings are pretty much capped.

  4. I could not agree more. Focus in on goals, identify priorities, then put your money where your goals/priorities are and hopefully that results in buying back your future vs. buying a bunch of useless junk (I mean, “nice shoes” or “fancy purses”).

    1. I think “nice things/spurges” are fine, once in a while, but when the person goes nuts and uses that to get dopamine hits to the brain, then they have a problem. The happiness from those things are short-lived whereas the happiness from freedom lasts forever.

  5. Great article. I must say I experienced this first hand with my student line of credit for law school. Up to that point I had NEVER spent a cent I hadn’t earned and I got my first credit card at 19. But somehow, as the number crept higher and higher, it became EASIER to spend the line of credit. Luckily I kicked that debt in the ass 2 years after graduating, but I remember thinking “how strange” it was was to be able to spend that money so easily. I had all sorts of justifications but all of them ended up with me in debt at the end of the day.

    1. This is why credit cards really mess up our brains. People just end up thinking it’s not real money.

      Good for you for murdering that debt monster and becoming self-aware. It’s never too late to fix the debt problem, but it’s hard for people to acknowledge there’s a problem in the first place. Credit distorts our view of money.

  6. The taxi example makes me think of a lot of people earning minimum wages $10-$12/hr and yet they would easily spend that money on meals. Even when they are at work. They spend it on meals simply because they had to eat, but say you need lunch and dinner, that’s like two hours of your work just went into meals. Can’t you pack your own meals or for some other alternatives? This kind of habits puzzles me as they could never save for a meaningful amount of money. The sad part is the whole economy runs on consumptions, if those people stop spending, we may have a problem in the economy.

    1. “The sad part is the whole economy runs on consumptions, if those people stop spending, we may have a problem in the economy.”

      those are my thoughts too, if everyone stopped wasting money then the country would go into recession and then lay offs would start happening and it’s hard to save for retirement without a job.

      I’ve known a lot of people like the ones you described and I just shake my head but I don’t bother trying to lecture them on saving money, a lot of the time they know better but just do what they want anyway.

    2. It’s a machine that traps you into staying in and never getting out. That’s why they tell people “spend more, it’s good for the economy” so that they will trick themselves into buying shit they don’t need to keep the machine going. But in reality, humans will never stop finding problems to solve and life would go on. We’d figure out how to survive on less, and prioritize our spending towards more meaningful things. But I think all that is moot point, because there will never be enough FIRE people to move the needle. Too many people are stuck in the Matrix and have convinced themselves they don’t want to get out.

      Bad for them. Good for us 🙂

      1. That’s true. Even if everyone were frugal, the economy would eventually figure out how to thrive on less. I guess this kind of reminds me of the Scandinavians where they are a little less consumption oriented. But in reality, especially with the popular culture, being frugal and FIRE are really not that “sexy” haha. Good for us. 🙂

  7. Perfectly stated.

    I’m just finishing up The Marshmallow Test and this post is a perfect real world scenario that articulates the concept. Why wait to get two marshmallows later when you can have one marshmallow now (destroying your chance for any future marshmallows)?

    1. Ah, the good ol’ marshmallow test. Except in 2017 terms, it’d probably be twitter likes, FB likes, avocado toast or whatever the young’uns are into these days 🙂

  8. Very good post. You’ve just inspired me to calculate the amount of time I would have to work and the number of years I’d need to save in order to get the amount of money that I am fortunate enough to be receiving as a gift from family. It’s a long, long time. It’s making me that much more grateful. So thank you for the reality check.

    1. Yes that is a great way of looking at it. There is nothing wrong with receiving gifts (or handouts) from family but it is important to appreciate the value of the money and not throw it away on frivolous crap.

      I’ve never really understood how people can get a bonus, large birthday cheque, inheritance, etc. and just go “whoop! free money!” and waste it all.

      It reminds me of this old episode of Just Shoot Me where Vicky complains to Maya that her rent is due and she doesn’t have any money so Maya uses her connections in the company to give Vicky a surprise “bonus” cheque but it’s actually just Maya’s money out of pocket that she’s giving to her out of charity. Then Vicky shows up to the office with a chimpanzee because she felt like renting a monkey and buying new shoes with her bonus money instead of paying her rent.

    2. Awesome. Thank you for being self-aware and grateful for your family’s hard work and time. It’s always good to do a reality check every now and then.

  9. Oh girl, puh-reach about the Tiffany friend. I can’t tell you how many old college acquaintances of mine are still stuck in their sixth year of college. Like … wut. And it’s so true that there’s a balance between saving time and saving money. We need to be smart about our money choices while not wasting time, either.

    1. This comment made me smile. I know someone like that too. Not only does her dad pay for her education but also her fancy condo in downtown Vancouver while she lets her 40 year old boy friend who is over 10 years older than her live at her place (that daddy pays for) rent free.

      1. I get that parents want the best for their kids, but really this is just making them dependent. How will anyone learn to stand on their own two feet and manage their money if they don’t understand that money needs to be EARNED with time. *sigh*. I guess this is why they say wealth only lasts 3 generations.

    2. This is why when readers ask me “but if you have kids, wouldn’t you want to give them money so they don’t suffer?” Um. No. Giving kids money without them having to work for it just screws them up. They need to have skin in the game. I doubt Tiffany would switch careers so often if she had to PAY for it herself with a part-time job.

  10. Actually, your numbers are much worse when you consider that they are post tax. The pretax numbers could be a lot more, representing quite a bit more labor for that “time is money” expense.

    1. Very true. I kept taxes out of it because it varies depending on where you live, but yes, that makes it even worse.

    1. Oh it’s really simple, all I had to do is–THUNK

      (That sound you just heard is me being tackled by my lawyer)

  11. The time is money thing is really an opportunity cost and efficiency question. Typically small business owners understand this concept. In the cab example, the opportunity cost is as you say the difference in the cab fare to the next best option, the $17 per trip. Therefore, if you want to use financial logic to justify your expense, you have to get an efficiency of at least that $17. That means you either save it on something else due to time constraints or make it with the extra time you have. Saving could be getting to a grocery store before it closes for a holiday or B&B before it closes for the night after your plane landed late. Making it could be just by having the privacy to make a phone call to close a sale or work in the cab. But there can be many other excuses to justify the expense. An emergency, extreme tiredness, and safety are others I can think of. Sorry for the long post, but I just wanted to expand on your excellent post.

    1. Thanks for your 2 cents! Done by Forty also mentioned small businesses and how they would spend the money on the convenience only if they can use it to increase their earnings.

      So yes, there are valid reasons for spending on convenience. For my friends, “but but but I’m saving 20 mins from not riding the subway, and then I’ll just waste that time by binge watching Orange Is The New Black ” is not one of them 😛

  12. Absolutely FireCracker! The relationship between time and money is an important one that doesn’t get nearly enough emphasis!

    Thankfully, I have never purchased an expensive designer handbag (nor has Mrs. Tak0). While we might own a house, we would never do so unless we could pay for it completely.

    Sure, we could buy a fancier house, use taxi’s to go everywhere, and rack up credit card debt…but we don’t! We would never want to trade more of our lives for useless status symbols and excessive convenience.

    1. We think alike on the whole “no such thing as a free lunch” and “don’t buy bullshit you don’t need”. This is why I love your “No Free Lunch College Plan” post so much!

  13. Love this post – as a recent Hamiltonian I am shocked that my friends in Toronto have been suckered into thinking a $million bucks is an entry level starter home!! WTF!! Keep up the good work guys i love the articles and I am counting the days to financial freeedom!!

    1. And visitors wonder why union station is packed with zombies hordes going off to work every day, stressing out to pay for a million dollar house.

      Ahh good ol’ Hamilton. Here’s a Sichuan Hot Pot place called “liu liu’s” that I really like there. Yum!

      Keep crushing it on your path to FI! Routing for you!

  14. I always always thought of money is time. Every purchase, I would automatically think how many hours of work does this cost us? Time was way more valuable to me than a purse or pair of shoes. This is part of what worked for us in achieving FIRE so young. However, I have observed that not everyone values time in this way. To some the “perceived” value of having things is more than their time. Breaking free of the habit or tendency to compare what we have with others, or to put too much emphasis on making an impression, is another tool to achieve FIRE, and in my opinion contentment.

    1. “Breaking free of the habit or tendency to compare what we have with others, or to put too much emphasis on making an impression.”

      Yup, that’s exactly it. Doesn’t matter how much we talk about money = time, they won’t listen because they’re too busy showing off their fancy things to other people. But the truth is, if you base your happiness on other people’s acceptance, you’ll never be truly happy. You simply can’t control how other people think.

  15. Hi Firecracker, what do you recommend for someone who has a mortgage of 280k with a house worth approx. $600k? Our family has established our roots (school, work etc..) and would only consider selling and renting if we could stay in the same area. To rent a 3 bedroom house where we are would be roughly $2400 per month plus utilities so let’s say $2700. We currently pay 1400 mortgage, 400 prop tax, 70 insurance, 300 utilities, 200 maintenance = $2370. Would it ever make sense to sell and rent of renting would cost you more monthly?

    1. No, it doesn’t make sense to sell if renting costs you more. I’m glad you didn’t use real-estate funny math and actually included prop tax, insurance, utils, etc :). However, you also need to consider the equity that is tied up in the house. Since your house is worth 600K, subtracting 5% for agent fee, you’d get $570,000. Subtract the remaining mortgage of $280,000, you’d get $290,000. If you were to invest it over the long term with a conservative 6% return that’s an extra $17,400/year or $1450, that you’re not getting by locking the money in the house.

      That being said, it depends on what your goal is. If staying where you are is more important than retiring early, and you’re okay with keeping the house and having to work longer, then by all means, continue doing what you’re doing.

      Something you could considering is downsizing to a smaller place. That would decrease the expenses and decrease the portfolio you’d need to retire. But again, it depends on what’s important to you.

  16. Whenever I hear the phrase “time is money” it reminds me of the goblins in warcraft who greet everyone with “Time is money, friend.”

    This post and some of the comments remind me of a quote “maybe there’s more than the treasures we secure that become heavy chains to sink us in tidal waves” from Wonderful Life by Brian Fallon (of Gaslight Anthem)

    Some people pay out the ass for these status symbols and end up drowning in debt because of it. I would so much rather have time than money or things that make me appear rich. It has never made sense to me to have designer shoes and handbags. I have had the same purse for the last 12 years and I think i got it on clearance for $30. The only “designer” clothes I own are the ones I designed myself.

    Owning fancy stuff wouldn’t make me happy even if I could afford to buy it, what does make me happy is the freedom of FI. I have found that since we achieved FI I am much happier and often find myself thinking more favorably about others and genuinely hoping they are doing well. Before I was more indifferent about other people, I wouldn’t hope they were doing badly and i’d hope everything was okay but now I find myself really hoping for the best for pretty much everyone I know, even people I don’t really like or get along with. I think that is a good indicator of happiness and in the same line of thinking, reinforces that belief that trolls and bully are people who feel bad about themselves or their lives and they take it out on other people and try to drag them down. I haven’t ever been much of a troll or a bully but i did used to get a thrill out of putting bullies in their place and sticking up for people who are getting picked on. While i still think that it is valid enough to stick up for people who are being mistreated, it does make me consider the underlying causes for bullying and that this person probably already feels bad about themselves and I’ve went and made them feel worse. Good thing I rarely have to deal with people anymore now that we are FI so it isn’t really an issue.

    1. “I have found that since we achieved FI I am much happier and often find myself thinking more favorably about others and genuinely hoping they are doing well.”

      I completely agree with you on this front. It’s much easier to have compassion if you’re happy and aren’t stressed dealing with your own problems. That’s the power of FI. It makes us better people because we’re not so busy dealing with our own problems that we forget to have compassion.

  17. When I was in high school I worked at a nursing home on weekends. Whenever I thought about spending money, I would think about how any toilets I had to clean to earn it. It made me think hard about whether that purchase was worth it.

    1. Yup, that’s what people who don’t get hand-outs and aren’t addicted to debt do. If everyone had to translate their money into #of toilets cleaned, they sure as hell wouldn’t be blowing through it all without thinking.

  18. Nice article. I found tracking my income and expenses a nice way to tie that pain of spending with the use of credit cards. I like using YNAB (the stand alone version) to track these expenses and for budgeting. BugdetsAreSexy( has a nice free budget spreadsheet.
    I like budgets, I’m weird that way. For those that don’t like them, just track how much you spend on a few categories over one month. For example, Restaurants, Toys/Electronics, Clothing, etc. You might be surprised how much you’re spending there.

    1. Love BudgetsAreSexy 🙂 I’ve heard a lot of good feedback on YNAB too.

      I’m like you in my obsession with budgets, but I think we are the exceptions rather than the norm. That’s why it helps to prioritize your spending so it doesn’t feel like a “diet”. Your advice to track just a few categories will definitely reveal a lot of waste that most people aren’t aware of.

  19. Get with the program, Kristy! Superficiality rules. So give us a break! Some of the surest and fastest ways to impress our “friends” are to buy that multi-million dollar mansion, put a couple of Mercedes or Teslas in the driveway, and plunk down a grand for that latest iPhone or three for that handbag. Once we have those, we, of course, have to stick it to our friends’ faces by posting their pictures on Fakebook and Instacrap, too. It’s all about looking good and looking well-off. That’s what life is about these days. Don’t you know that by now? It is the prestige factor. Who cares about debt! Prestige trumps debt. We have done that calculus in our hare-brains and have decided that those envious looks and those ‘likes’ on our posts these things would elicit from our “friends” are well worth the price we must pay — for however long: we are addicts and these are our mini-heroin shots. Stop judging us! Let us have it our way!

    Yes! So what if we do like to burn our candles made of rolled-up money at both ends — just look, look how beautifully they burn — especially on our Fakebook channels!

    P.S. Sarcasm intended.

    P.P.S. I own Apple stock and therefore I encourage all of you to go snatch up iPhone 8 ASAP when it comes out in September or October.

    P.P.P.S. Full disclosure: I don’t own an iPhone — or any Apple products (‘never get high on your own supply’).

    1. That was all sarcasm? You don’t say. 😛 #QueenofSnark

      Now if you’ll excuse me, this Millennial has to go selfie it up on FB…or wait, is Snapchat the king of social media now? I can’t keep it straight!

  20. “And so my parents drilled into my young brain that debt is bad and only losers who can’t manage their finances need debt.”

    Wait, weren’t they getting on your case to go into debt buying an expensive house?

    ARB–Angry Retail Banker

  21. The true value of money in such decision-making scenarios has two different components: opportunity cost — which is the monetary value of what you may need to give up to make the selection — and time value of money.

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